In this “Year of Napoleon,” we are highly honored to present this exclusive interview with Thierry Lentz, who is the foremost authority on Napoleon Bonaparte. He has written over sixty books on the Consulate period as well as the First French Empire. He is the current director of the Fondation Napoléon, and a Professor at the Institut catholique de Vendée.
On the occasion of the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death (May 5, 1821), Professor Lentz is interviewed by Arnaud Imatz, on behalf of the Postil.
Arnaud Imatz (AI): 2021 is the year of the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death at Longwood on the island of Saint Helena, May 5, 1821. The historical figure of the Emperor of the French (although it might be more appropriate to say the “historical figures” of the Emperor) has inspired in the world, and not only in France, an infinity of novels, historical works, films (more than a thousand) and pictorial or musical works. The two legends of Napoleon, black and golden, are now firmly established. But why does Napoleon still remain so much in our memories?
Thierry Lentz (TL): Napoleon is present in our memories for all the reasons you have just mentioned. He occupies a very special place in French history and memory. But beyond that, he is also linked to our daily life and our habits. Our state still resembles the one he created, our institutions are his and, above all, our daily life is influenced by the Civil Code. Even though this Code has undergone multiple reforms, necessary to adapt to new times and mores, its framework is still the same. It influences our daily lives and even what happens after we die through inheritance law. We are thus aware of the importance of Napoleon in our history… without always remembering that he is indeed there, in our present.
AI: In 1815, the 15-year adventure ended in disaster; the black legend certainly seemed to have definitely won. Napoleon “the warmonger” deserved nothing but ignorance and oblivion. However, the situation did quickly change. How and why did he become the hero of the 19th century liberal romantics against monarchists and traditionalists?
TL: The defeat at Waterloo, and the Treaty of Paris of November 1815, were indeed a catastrophe for France: it was occupied for three years and had to pay a formidable war indemnity. As a result, the image of Napoleon was tarnished; and we can say that it is then that the black legend triumphed. Even his death, announced in Europe in July 1821, went almost unnoticed. The displays of mourning were sporadic.
It was two years later, with the publication of The Memorial of Saint Helena by Emmanuel de Las Cases, that things started to turn around. As Lamartine came to observe, while France was bored, and Charles X passed away as the restorer of the Ancien Régime, that the image of Napoleon, presented as liberal by the Memorial, “recovered” and came to permeate both the arts and politics. The accumulation of references created a somewhat imaginary Napoleon; at the same time as the struggle to maintain the achievements of 1789 was once again becoming a reality. We put the emperor at the head of these struggles.
AI: Should we consider Napoleon as the continuator of the French Revolution, or as its “channeler,” if not its gravedigger? Did he want to conquer Europe in the name of a kind of revolutionary internationalism, or did he paradoxically contribute, by his invasions, to the creation of European nations? Was his ambition to disseminate ideas, relating to the rights of peoples, the defense of civil equality, the “intangible principles” of the Revolution? Or was he quite simply the continuator of Louis XIV, the bearer of the hegemonic aims of France, which then wanted to be dominant in the world as Spain had once been and as England and Germany would be or wanted to be, not to speak of the United States, Russia and China?
TL: Napoleon was undoubtedly the stabilizer of the Revolution, in his own version of 1789. He was certainly not a liberal in politics. But in social matters, he established civil equality, the right to property, the non-confessionality of the state and civil liberty (which is therefore not political). At a time when the country aspired to restore order and enjoy the achievements, he was the right man on the inside. In 1802, he had already accomplished much of the task: the great reforms were launched and civil peace returned.
Outside of France, things were a bit different. He was indeed the continuator of the diplomacy of the Ancien Régime and of the Revolution, halfway between seeking to impose French dominance in Europe and intending to spread the revolutionary principles (of 1789) in Europe. This is why the evaluation of his work outside France is so difficult. This was his main failure. While there is nothing left of the “Great Empire,” a great deal of its political and social accomplishments yet remain in France and in Europe.
AI: Why was the French military superior to others at that time?
TL: The French military benefited from its modernization throughout the Revolution, mainly in terms of manpower through conscription. They were now fighting for ideas and every citizen was invited to participate. Napoleon reorganized everything again—his army corps, the doctrine of the employment of cavalry and artillery, the excellence of command, and the amalgamation of old troops and conscripts. He also benefited from the concentration of the army at Boulogne, where for two and a half years, the soldiers lived together and trained, while awaiting the hypothetical invasion of England.
This army would long remain the best in the world and would show this excellence in the campaigns from 1805 to 1807. It was finally led by a true military genius, with a unique eye and quick decision-making. Things did turn sour afterwards, with the war in Spain, which devoured ground-troops, prevented amalgamation and demonstrated that this Grand Army was not invincible.
AI: Until 1795, France had the third largest population in the world, behind only China and India. Isn’t this the major explanatory factor for the Napoleonic conquests, rather than the merits and faults of the emperor?
TL: Regarding French military losses, which were poorly understood, it was not until the 1970s to have scientifically established figures. They are essentially derived from the work of demographer-historian Jacques Houdaille. Making use of large-scale scientific surveys in the extensive records, he estimated that there were about 450,000 men killed in action and about as many deaths from injury or illness, along with a few tens of thousands of the “missing.” It can be assumed that the actual losses are in the range of 900,000 to 1 million fatalities.
As for the allies and enemies of France, they suffered, it is often said, but without knowing how to prove it, losses that were “slightly higher” than those of the Grande Armée. If we adopt this principle, the wars of the Empire cost Europe from 2 to 2.5 million men over ten years. While this death toll is significant, it is still lower than in many previous and subsequent wars.
What is more, Europe was not drained of blood at the end of the period, neither economically nor demographically. There was no systematic destruction of towns and villages, and even less of the means of production, except in the Iberian Peninsula where the responsibility was largely shared between French and English troops.
Regarding demography, specialists have shown that France had nearly 1.5 million more inhabitants in 1815 than in 1790. For the whole of Europe, population growth was greater for the 1790-1816 period to what it had been from 1740 to the Revolution. These results are of course due to advances in medicine and the decline in infant mortality. But this general finding will no doubt surprise more than one.
AI: Politically, was Napoleon a “classic” dictator, in the Roman sense, or a totalitarian dictator in the modern sense? Do you consider that despite his mistakes, especially in the choice of ministers, often traitors and incompetents, he remained an exceptional leader or even a political visionary?
TL: It goes without saying that from 1799 to 1815, Napoleon spent every minute strengthening and defending the reign of the executive, even if it meant showing himself to be more and more authoritarian. But to speak of a dictatorship and, moreover, of a military dictatorship, is to make fun of history and the meaning of words.
According to the jurist and political scientist Maurice Duverger—who has devoted a good part of his work to the concept of dictatorship—three simultaneous conditions are necessary to characterize it: 1) that the regime be installed and maintained by force, in particular military; 2) that it be arbitrary, that is to say that it suppresses freedoms and controls the decisions of arbitral or judicial bodies; 3) that it be considered illegitimate by a large part of the citizens. The study of each of these points for the Napoleonic regime leads to the rejection of any such peremptory conclusion. Under Napoleon, the establishment of a strong and embodied state was not accompanied by the systematic use of illegitimate coercion or indiscriminate force, much less for the benefit of the army.
AI: In economics, was Napoleon an interventionist or a liberal?
TL: In economic matters, Napoleon was more of a “liberal.” For him, the state did not have to intervene in the day-to-day economy, except for foreign trade which was carried out “for the grandeur of the state.” It was also important to him that the social situation be as stable as possible; and that is why he was able to intervene with public orders at the time of the crises, in particular that of 1810, which was extremely serious.
AI: Is he the “father” of the modern French state?
TL: Napoleon put an end to the trial-and-error approach when it came to the organization of the state and its administration. He simplified the grid into a pyramid model, at the top of which was the executive, not always himself in person, but those who represented the government, such as ministers. This has been called the “French model,” moreover adopted by most European states, with adaptations, even among its enemies.
AI: In his will Napoleon declared himself belonging to the Catholic religion. Can the leader of an army of soldiers from the Revolution, whose members were seen as dechristianizers in most countries of Europe, be presented as a Catholic? Wasn’t his Catholicism more of interest than conviction?
TL: We will never know whether Napoleon believed in God or not. What is certain is that he saw religions, especially the Catholic religion, as an intermediary body that should contribute to social stability and public order. This is why he “reestablished” Catholicism, organized Protestantism and Judaism, leaving them a certain dogmatic freedom, but subjecting them to the law of the state.
AI: What is the difference between the non-denominational Napoleonic state and the tradition of French republican secularism that prevailed from 1880 onwards, under the Third Republic?
TL: The Napoleonic non-confessionality, established in principle by the Civil Code, is a first step towards secularism. It proclaims that the various churches are subject to the state and to the law. But with Napoleon, this is expressed through concrete measures: public and civil status, acceptance of divorce, submission of faiths to the laws governing public order. He had no ambition to intervene in beliefs; but on the other hand, he left nothing to be organized outside of social and political necessities.
AI: Freemasonry lived fifteen extraordinary years under Napoleon, multiplying the number of lodges which went from 300 to 1220. Napoleon had many Freemasons in his family (including Jérôme, Louis and Joseph, whom the Spaniards nicknamed Pepe Botella); 14 of the first 18 marshals were Freemasons, as were a number of generals and most of the great dignitaries of the Empire. What was his relationship to Freemasonry? Was he himself a Freemason?
TL: Even if he himself was not (there is no proof of a supposed initiation in Egypt), Napoleon was surrounded by initiates such as his brothers, as well as Cambacérès, Lebrun, Fouché, Talleyrand, etc. In his Masonic policy, he relied above all on Cambaceres, who appeared to be the “protector” of the Order.
Initiated in 1781 in a lodge in Montpellier, Cambaceres climbed all the ranks and took this commitment very seriously, including at the time of the revolutionary interdicts. He then helped his friend Alexandre-Louis Roëttiers de Montaleau, grand master of the Grand Orient, to “rekindle fires” within the Directory. He thus participated in the first ranks in the meeting of June 22, 1799 by which, in the presence of five hundred masons, the Grand Lodge merged into the Grand Orient.
From that moment, French Freemasonry had almost regained its unity, further supplemented by the addition of the Grand Chapter of Arras to the Grand Orient, on December 27, 1801. It was not affected by the creation of a Scottish lodge, in 1803, an experiment immediately stopped by a new act of union signed a few days after the Imperial Coronation.
This unification of December 5, 1804, sometimes qualified as a “Masonic concordat,” confirmed the primacy of the Grand Orient which, in exchange, admitted the maintenance of several rites within it. Napoleon would have liked Freemasonry to constitute an intermediary body supporting the regime. But it was too plural for that; it crossed too many parties to be able to be a real support. It was never that, and continued its existence without problem under other regimes.
AI: It has often been suggested that after his military expedition to Egypt (1798 – 1799), Napoleon Bonaparte professed great sympathy for Islam? Was he sincere?
TL: Napoleon studied Muhammad, especially through the works of Voltaire. He admired his determined and almost warlike aspect. His sympathy for Islam hardly went beyond that. He did not convert, nor was he inspired by it for the Civil Code, as we can sometimes read on websites that are sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.
AI: Almost all European people had a place in the Grand Army (Dutch, Saxons, Germans, Poles, Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, Belgians, Austrians, Bavarians, Swiss, etc..). Allied strengths even made up between 20% to 48% of the total force, depending on the campaign, but only the Poles remained loyal to the end. How do you explain that?
TL: It has been said, and we have come to believe, that it was out of pure personal ambition that Napoleon made war. But this forgets that, at that time, peace was a state of emergency and that all states were primarily concerned with preparing for inevitable conflict. This is also forgets that history and geopolitics often made it inevitable. I have written dozens of pages on this subject to which I refer interested readers. I will just repeat here that Europe was not simply divided into two camps during the Napoleonic episode; otherwise, it would not have been until the fall of 1813 that a general coalition was formed against France.
Before that, the continental powers had come to terms with French dominance and tried to make as much profit as possible for themselves. It was the great success of British diplomacy to succeed in uniting all of Europe around its lowest common denominator (bringing down France and its leader), by playing on resentments and unfulfilled promises to some, and to others, on the economy and finances—much more than on the principle of a “liberation” of the Continent. This explains why many foreign contingents were placed at the disposal of the Grande Armée for nearly fifteen years, most often with the consent of their sovereigns.
AI: The controversies surrounding the figure of Napoleon have redoubled in virulence on the eve of the celebration of the bicentenary of his death. The exaltation of heroism and the spirit of sacrifice have now largely given way to victimist and navel-gazing ideology. On the other hand, the wave of political correctness and the nihilistic modes embodied in the woke spirit or the cancel culture originating in North America seem irresistible. As a result, the vast majority of the media see Napoleon only as a tyrant, an instigator of war, a misogynist, a supporter of patriarchy, a slaver (for having reestablished slavery eight years after its suppression and imprisoned Toussaint Louverture, a black separatist, who had been appointed general under the Directory). How do you answer these charges?
TL: I answer them at length in the book I just published, Pour Napoléon (For Napoleon). I think we are at an important time in the fight against the trends that you describe.
Our rulers are paralyzed by groups which have made a specialty of amalgams and historical untruths to impose their “agenda,” and to accuse their country of having “murdered” entire categories, and then defiling public places or calling for action and riot?
Nothing was done either to prevent or to combat the iconoclastic fever that came from the United States, after the tragic death of George Floyd. Even though we sometimes think that the famous “submission,” nicely denounced by Michel Houellebecq, is a bit tricky, it is all the same the first word that comes to mind.
If one believes Montesquieu’s warning that “oppression always begins with sleep,” one can only be frightened to see those we mandate to preserve national cohesion and unity sleeping soundly—or pretending to sleep so as not to see anything, which in the end comes to the same. As a historian and as a citizen, I thought that I could not remain inert in the face of this danger.
AI: Monsieur Lentz, thank you for this delightful conversation.
The featured image shows, “Napoleon I, crowned by the Allegory of Time, writes the Code Civil,” by Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse, painted in 1833.
The featured image shows a portrait of Napoleon by Andrea Appiani, painted in 1805.
This month, we are greatly pleased to present this interview with Darío Fernández-Morera, Associate Professor Emeritus of Northwestern University. He has a B.A. from Stanford, an M.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D. from Harvard. He has served in the United States National Council for the Humanities.
His research and teaching include, among other subjects, Golden Age and Medieval Spanish literature, culture and history. He has published several books and editions and many articles and reviews in English, Spanish and French on cultural, historical, theoretical and methodological issues in Spain, Europe, Latin America and the United States, including the encounter between Europeans and Amerindians, Cervantes, Garcilaso de la Vega, Fray Luis de León, Inca Garcilaso, Vicente Aleixandre, Islamic Spain, and Modernism.
He has published in, and served as consultant and reader for, History of European Ideas, The European Legacy, Le Figaro Histoire, Symposium, Hispanic Review, The United States National Endowment for the Humanities, Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos, Comparative Civilizations Review, Comparative Literature Studies, Modern Age, MLN, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, etc.
He is the recipient of the 2008 award for Graduate Teaching Excellence from the Northwestern University School of Continuing Studies. He has served as Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. He likes animals, especially dogs, plants, and the sea.
He is in conversation with Father Seán Connolly, in which he gives a thorough analysis of a little-known part of history, namely, the plight of European slaves in Islamic lands.
Father Seán Connolly (Fr.SC): What was the ultimate purpose of the early Islamic conquests?
Darío Fernández-Morera (DFM): Applied sharia (fiqh) required that infidels who did not submit peacefully to Islam should be fought and prisoners enslaved. As experts in Islamic Law, such as, Felipe Maíllo Salgado (University of Salamanca) explain, and Medieval Islamic treatises and chronicles attest, religion was fundamental. They also make clear that jihad was understood as a struggle to make the world submit, not as some “spiritual” struggle to become “a better person.”
This religious foundation is evident in the answer given by Muslim authorities to the Americans before the “Barbary Wars” (1801-05, 1815), fought by the United States to try to end North African Muslim raids on American and European ships:
We took the liberty to make some inquiries concerning the Grounds of their pretentions to make war upon Nations who had done them no Injury, and observed that we considered all mankind as our friends who had done us no wrong, nor had given us any provocation. The Ambassador [of Tunis] answered us that it was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Musselman [sic] who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise. (Letter of American Commissioners to John Jay, 28 March 1786).
Christians enslaved Muslims, but unlike the case of Islam’s religious texts, the Gospels have no analogous injunctions against non-Christians. Nor was the enslavement of Muslims comparable. As historian Robert C. Davis shows in Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500-1800, entire European coastal areas and towns were depopulated by Muslim raids. We have no comparable record of depopulation in Muslim lands. As you point out, so vast was the enslavement of Christians, that not one but two monastic orders dedicated themselves to their rescue.
Fr.SC: Detail the dominance of Islamic armies in the Mediterranean region between the 8th and the 19th centuries.
DFM: These attacks, and the enslavement of Christians, should be contextualized within much more encompassing jihads to make the world submit. Islam ended the enclaves of Jews and Christians in Arabia. The larger offensive against Christianity started with the unprovoked jihad against the Christian Greek Roman Empire (misnamed “Byzantine”: its inhabitants called themselves Romans; its enemies called them Romans—Rum, as do Muslim texts–and Europeans called them Greeks to avoid calling them Romans because Europe now had its own “Holy Roman Empire,” started by Charlemagne; nobody called them “Byzantines,” a name invented by a Protestant scholar in the sixteenth century and adopted by academics since).
This jihad wrestled from Christianity the Holy Land, Syria, North Africa, Anatolia (today’s Turkey), Armenia, and Greece. Only Greece and Armenia eventually escaped Islamic control.
This jihad began with the victory over the Christians at Yarmuk (636). It continued until the Christian defeat at Manzikert (1071). Manzikert opened the Christian Anatolian peninsula to the Muslim Turks. It prompted the Greek Roman Emperor Alexius I Comnenos to ask Europe for help. Pope Urban II gave him this help by organizing the First Crusade. Against terrible odds, the crusaders recovered the Holy Land, though only from 1099 to 1291. The Islamic assault against what remained of the Christian Greek Roman Empire culminated with the Fall of Constantinople (1453). Turkish dictator Ataturk, architect of the Armenian Christians’ genocide, changed Constantinople’s name (Κωνσταντινούπολις “the city of [Emperor] Constantine”) to “Istanbul” to erase its Greek and Christian origin. Islam conquered Zoroastrian Persia (today’s Iran) in the seventh century, ending Zoroastrian rule.
Muslim armies, made up largely of North African Berbers recently forced to convert, crossed the strait named Pillars of Hercules (changed by Muslims to Jebel-al-Tariq, hence Gibraltar, to celebrate their commander Tariq) and conquered three quarters of Christian Spain (711-719). Christians from the North gradually fought back (the Spanish Reconquista), and after their victory at the big battle of Navas de Tolosa (16 July 1212) recovered most of the land, except for the small kingdom of Granada, which fell in 1492.
For centuries, the Spanish Catholic Church celebrated Navas de Tolosa as the day of the Triunfo de la Santa Cruz because Christians saw a cross in the sky, and a banner with the cross, carried by a Canon on horseback before the archbishop of Toledo, Jiménez de Rada (who fought on horseback alongside the Christian soldiers), led the Christians to victory without suffering damage. Navas de Tolosa was the culmination of a Crusade blessed by Pope Innocent III (d. 1216). The celebration has disappeared from the Catholic calendar.
Under Turkish leadership, Islam conquered the Christian Balkans and much of Christian Eastern Europe, and then moved against Central Europe. These attacks culminated with the sieges of Vienna in 1529 (Spanish and German troops saved Vienna) and 1683 (by September 11 Vienna was about to fall, but Vienna and probably Europe were saved on the morning of September 12 by the arrival of Catholic Polish king Jan Sobieski III with his Winged Hussars, who crushed the Turks).
All these attacks produced millions of captives, not counting the centuries of attacks against the coasts and ships of Europe–which reached as far as Iceland–or the massive enslavement of Slavs in Eastern Europe by Islamized Mongols and Tatars. In 846 Arabs even sacked the St. Peter and Paul Basilicas’ treasures and relics (Pope Sergius II fled behind the Aurelian walls; his successor Leo IV built the Vatican walls). Turks sacked Otranto (1480), enslaved thousands, and beheaded 800 who refused to convert (the Martyrs of Otranto); they conquered Cyprus (1570), beheaded the commander of Nicosia, deceived and skinned alive the commander of Famagusta, Marcantonio Bragadino, and enslaved Nicosia and Famagusta’s Greek population. Historian of slavery Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau (Sciences Po, Paris) estimates that the Islamic enslavement of whites far surpasses the transatlantic trade in black slaves (Les traites négrières).
One victim of the raids in the Mediterranean was Miguel de Cervantes, who was captured and enslaved in Algiers for five years. The Trinitarians ransomed him. He later became a Franciscan Lay Brother, but he asked to be buried at the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Madrid. Islam impacted Cervantes’s life even earlier: he fought at the crucial Battle of Lepanto (Greek, Naupaktos) on October 7, 1571, off the coast of Greece. At Lepanto, a Christian fleet of Spanish, Venetian, Genoese, Papal, and other Italian ships, organized by Pope Saint Pius V, and commanded by John of Austria, half-brother of King Philip II, defeated a larger Turkish fleet and checked the Islamic advance in the Mediterranean. Fifteen thousand Christian slaves rowing in the Muslim ships were freed. Though ill, Cervantes asked to be placed at the most dangerous part of the ship, and was shot three times. He recovered, but lost the use of his left hand—“for the greater glory of his right one,” as the Spanish saying goes.
October 7th was celebrated by the Catholic Church as the day of Our Lady of Victory, because Saint Pius V instructed all Christian fighters to pray the Rosary before the battle. The day is now called Our Lady of the Rosary. The great banner of the Turkish admiral, decorated with the image of Muhammad’s scimitar, and the name of Allah stitched in gold 29,800 times, was captured and kept for years near the tomb of Saint Pius V at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. In 1965 Pope Paul VI gave it to the Turks as a gesture of good will.
Islam attacked China from 651 to 751. Most of China remained unconquered. But the outer regions of the Chinese empire fell. Today’s Kazaks, Uzbeks, Uyghurs, among others, are Muslims. These areas were once Buddhist, Hindu (as was Afghanistan) and even Christian.
Tatars invaded Christian Russia, exacting gold and slaves. After the big Battle of Kulikovo (1380) against the by then Islamized Tatars, Russians gradually reconquered their land.
Islam’s conquest of Hindu lands was brutal. Historian Will Durant wrote: “The Islamic conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history” (The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental History). So massive was the export of slaves from India through the mountains, that they were named Hindu Kush, which according to Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta (d. 1368/69) means “Killer of Hindus” in Persian, because of the vast number of Hindus who died from cold and hardships while transported. Pakistan was once Hindu and Buddhist, with some Christians as well.
Such was the impact of Christian slaves on Islamic lands, that many of the Umayyad rulers of Islamic Spain, as the sons of sexual slaves, were blue-eyed and blond or red-haired; and the founder of the “Arabic” Nasrid dynasty of Granada was called al-Hamar, “the Red One,” because of his reddish hair and beard. Tenth century Muslim geographer Ibn Hawqal writes that one of the main exports of Islamic Spain was slaves, and that “most of the white eunuchs of the world come from Spain.” Arabist Celia del Moral observes that in Umayyad al-Andalus the most coveted and therefore expensive sexual slaves were blond and red-haired females from the Northern Christian regions (see, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise).
Fr.SC: How large scale was the enslavement of sub-Saharan (“black”) Africans during this period?
DFM: Bernard Lugan, Africanist at the University of Lyon III, observes that the slavery of black Africans was initially a trade among black Africans, and that all peoples have practiced slavery, but only the white Europeans abolished it first (Esclavage, l’histoire à l’endroit). This is also noticed by the Benin Professor Abiola Felix Iroko.
Arab merchants were the principal intermediaries in this trade, and they conducted raids to capture black Africans. (See, Ghanan professor John Allenbillah Azumah’s The Legacy of Arab Islam in Africa). Islamic countries did not abolish slavery until recently. Turkey abolished the trade in black (Zanj) and white (Circassian) females in 1908. Kuwait abolished slavery in 1949, Qatar in 1952, Niger in 1960, Saudi Arabia in 1962. In some countries, slavery continues, unofficially.
It was the European colonizers of North Africa in the nineteenth century who not only finally ended the enslaving of white Europeans, but also officially ended the enslavement of sub-Saharan Africans by black Africans and Muslims. This ignored aspect of colonialism is underlined not only by Lugan, but also by Ivorian intellectual Ernst Tigori.
Fr.SC: Would you agree that little attention has been given to this in the teaching of history? Why do you think this is?
DFM: Yes. I want to point out that although traveling on donkeys rather than horses, characteristic of the Trinitarians, may be attributed to humility, another possibility is that in Islamic lands, where the friars went to help the Christian slaves, Christians were forbidden to ride horses. Nor could the Trinitarians have worn their blue and red crosses in Islamic lands. Islamic law considered offensive and even blasphemous and therefore forbade the display of crosses in public, even on the outside walls or on top of churches. They could be shown only inside churches. Moreover, churches could not be allowed in the main parts of a city, only on the outskirts; and they could not be taller or more beautiful than Muslim buildings.
Why all this is not taught in schools, or even discussed amply in academia, is the result of many factors. I will mention only one: “stake-holders” interests. Many academics who write and teach about Islam do not want to present their subject, which they love and is the bread and butter on which they publish, under such unfavorable light; and they will fight tooth and nail anyone who does. Prestigious Western universities and Islamic Studies programs receive large donations from Islamic countries. Academics do not want to jeopardize their careers, and even traveling to Islamic lands, by highlighting the issues examined here; and those who write about slavery do not wish to contextualize their condemnations of black slavery in the Americas by highlighting its centuries of existence before and after 1619 among black Africans and Muslims, or by mentioning the millions of whites enslaved by Islam through the centuries.
The featured images shows, “The Slave Market, Constantinople,” by William Allan, painted in 1838.
Konrad Paul Liessmann (KPL): There is this connection. Culture, in the sense of the great works of world literature, music and the visual arts, was banned from education. The only thing that now counts in education, therefore, is competencies; dealing with the great documents of culture is hardly relevant anymore. This is also the result of a “hatred of culture,” an attitude that wants to make it easy for everyone and denounces as elitist any argument that requires concentration, knowledge and effort. That doesn’t mean that this culture should be adopted uncritically; but without this culture all education is empty.
TP: How do you understand culture?” Do you think we have lost culture?
KPL: Of course, there are the most varied of provisions of culture. One can start from a concept of culture that turns everything into culture that people somehow do regularly, ritualized and in a formed way—in this sense one can speak of a culture of beer drinking as well as a culture of war. But one could also start from a narrow concept of culture that only accepts those forms of culture in which that tendency towards reflexivity and aestheticization has become independent. That could best be called “art.” Indeed, no one wants to reduce culture to art anymore. One would rather “expand” the concept of art and allow it to coincide with the expanded concept of culture. However, it was only the elitist concept of culture that was limited to artistic activity and associated with an exquisite quality standard that made it attractive for its expansion. The fact that even the stupidest TV show wants to be culture only makes sense if you want to peck at the aura of a term that you simultaneously negate with this claim.
However, the concept of culture also suggests other interpretations and differentiations. In its original meaning, culture has, strangely enough, three opposing terms that say more about it than laborious definitions of the term culture itself: nature, barbarism, and civilization. Culture can only be determined on the basis of these and in contrast to them. Culture is originally, in its derivation, from “agriculture,” that is, worked nature. Furthermore, culture is the work on human nature. What is still raw in people, i.e., na-ture, is cultivated and refined with regard to the actual purpose of the human: autonomy and freedom. Culture always has a strong aesthetic component. Culture is always freedom from necessity, a game of fantasy and imagination, and not the practice in the practical constraints of the digitalized competitive society. In this sense, it could be that we actually lose culture because we only see everything from the point of view of usefulness.
TP: Education, of course, is the primary focus of your book. But education now means so many different things. How do you understand education?
KPL: The beautiful German word Bildung has a wide variety of meanings. Of course, this includes essential aspects of upbringing (“Education”), but the imparting of scientific, cultural, aesthetic and historical knowledge is also part of education for me. And finally, education also has a lot to do with self-education, with the formation and cultivation of mind, body and soul, with the development of dispositions and talents.
TP: There is much talk about “skills” and getting students ready for jobs (which are non-existent). Do you think universities are betraying young people because they are training them to be obsolete?
KPL: Our dynamic world no longer allows precise predictions about the world of work of tomorrow. So it is hardly possible to train young people for a certain profession. Universities shouldn’t do that either. Universities should offer a scientific education that represents a solid basis for future prospects.
TP: You offer a very pertinent quotation from the German philosopher Peter Bieri, who also writes novels under the pseudonym, Pascal Mercier – “…the educated person reads books in such a way that they change him?” Could you speak about this “change?”
KPL: Well, Peter Bieri talks mainly about reading literature, novels, short stories, poetry. According to his thesis, the reader of literature learns how to talk about the way people think, want and feel. The reader learns the language of the soul. He learns that one can feel differently about the same thing than he is used to. He learns new words and new metaphors for mental events. Because his vocabulary, his conceptual repertoire, has grown, he can now talk about his experience in a more nuanced way, and this in turn enables him to feel more differentiated. Whoever feels more differentiated, who now has words for complex feelings, has changed through reading. Reading helps to better understand other people, other situations in life, strange worlds. Precisely because this is so important in a diverse world, I don’t understand why literature is disappearing from schools.
TP: Do you think education is secular redemption?
KPL: No, I do not think so. But very often it is pretended that all the problems of our world are solved if enough is invested into education. In no area of life is there so much hope set as in that of education; there is no authority that is trusted as much as education. Education is a sought-after resource for countries with few natural resources in global competition; education is seen as a medium with which girls, migrants, outsiders, lower classes, the disabled and oppressed minorities are to be emancipated, promoted, integrated and included; and education should protect young people from being seduced by drugs, the Islamic State, and protect them from the populists. Education is supposedly the means by which prejudice, discrimination, unemployment, hunger, obesity, anorexia, AIDS, inhumanity and genocide is prevented—the challenges of the future are met and children are happy, and young sdults should be made employable: But none of that is possible. There are far too many expectations placed on education— and that is why one is always disappointed in education.
TP: Technology has given modern man much leisure time – but modern man is also forever in a rush, never having enough time for anything. Could you explain this paradox?
KPL: I think modern technology is ambivalent: it gives us freedom and makes us dependent. This also characterizes digitization. Any relief will be undone by the variety of possibilities that this technology offers and that we want to exhaust. That’s why we’re constantly rushed because we don’t want to miss anything. And we don’t want to miss anything because we no longer have any idea what is really important in our life. I hardly exlcude myself from all this. Technology has a great seductive power—we forget how much it makes us slaves to our machines. The machines should serve us and not we who should serve the machines.
TP: Will technology make institutional education unnecessary?
KPL: I do not believe that it will. The current corona crisis in particular shows how important schools and universities are. Learning is primarily a social process; meeting people is constitutive for educational processes, not working through programs.
TP: You mention the term “pseudo-scientificization of pedagogy” used by the philosopher Julian Nida-Rümelin. Could you explain what this means?
KPL: We have a fundamental problem with the scientification of professions that could be viewed more as craft, such as education. A good teacher doesn’t have to be a good scientist, and a good scientist is by no means a good teacher. Nevertheless, I believe that in a modern knowledge-society, teachers in schools need scientific training, because the sciences are the basis of teaching. The fact that so much fake news and conspiracy theories are circulating today also has to do with the fact that we don’t know enough about how knowledge is produced and communicated.
TP: You make a very powerful statement in your book—“No, education alone cannot change a society.” What led you to this conclusion?
KPL: If you will permit: the historical experience. The current balance of power is reflected in every idea of education; the hope that the youth will do better one day has still been disappointed. Social changes result from social and economic tensions, from technological innovations, and, yes, also from wars. Education alone can do little here. And yet I do not give up the hope that educated people treat themselves, treat others, treat the environment a little more carefully than is currently happening.
TP: There is a very intriguing chapter in your book, entitled, “Europe Considered as Fine Art. Towards an Aesthetics of a Continent.” How should we understand this?
KPL: The idea was, based on the famous book “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” by Thomas de Quincey, not to look at Europe from an economic, political or bureaucratic point of view, but rather from an aesthetical one. How does a colorful map of Europe from the Middle Ages, the 19th century and the present affect us? What role do the great authors from Homer to Shakespeare to Flaubert and Dostoevsky play in our conception of Europe? What significance does “absolute music” have as a genuine European invention for European consciousness? Is it a coincidence that the “European Anthem” goes back to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony? And what do metaphors from architecture, such as, the talk of the “common-house Europe” mean for our self-image? I wanted to pursue these and similar questions.
TP: You also make an essential difference between art and science. Do both exist for the “betterment” of “society?”
KPL: No. They do not exist “for” the betterment of society. Because art and science have to be free and autonomous, only then do they work well. If they are subjected to other purposes, no matter how desirable to us, art and science will be corrupted. Ideology and morality therefore have no place in art and science. But as an expression of freedom, art and science can also be a model for what a sovereign and self-confident human life could look like. But: art is not science and science is not art. Art is committed to imagination and aesthetic form, science to empiricism and rationality.
TP: In your invigorating discussion of revolution, you talk about Henning Ritter’s Die Schreie der Verwundeten (Screams of the Wounded). Why are revolutions cruel?
KPL: I don’t know. But they are. All. Every revolution has betrayed its goals and ideals. Perhaps this is due to a fatal logic: because revolutionaries believe they are on the right side of history, they consider anything to be permitted in order to achieve their goals. Whoever considers everything to be allowed because the end justifies the means becomes cruel, evil, inhuman. We must distrust revolutionaries of all shades.
TP: You call modern democracy “an administrator of poverty.” That is both a marvelous and a disturbing phrase, given the ease with which censorship is now applied and the strict control of speech (especially in English-speaking countries). Is this the result of the “mercantilization of society and life,” to use your apt term?
KPL: This question touches on several aspects. The modern, democratic state becomes an “administrator of poverty” insofar as we see it primarily as a welfare state that is supposed to alleviate the worst negative consequences of economic and ecological developments. The state is no longer a center of power, but a compensation institution. This can be seen clearly, for example, in education policy, which has actually become social policy under the keywords “equity of opportunity” and “equal opportunities.” And the state is increasingly understood as a moral institution that has to ensure that people speak correctly, think correctly, love correctly, eat rightly and act correctly. Sometimes nudging is enough, sometimes it leads to regulations and prohibitions. This undoubtedly restricts human freedom. In addition, we model our lives in principle according to the model of the market, according to the model of companies. Professors become knowledge-managers, lovers become people who invest emotions with the hope of high returns.
TP: The structure of the “political party,” you state, has fallen into a crisis as a political model. Do you think such political parties have a future?
KPL: Well, I am not advocating the abolition of parties, I just see how the traditional big parties—bourgeois parties, social democratic parties—get into a crisis and new parties emerge faster and faster, which can also quickly disappear. This has to do with the fact that people are no longer clearly defined socially and culturally. Changing interests lead to changing political representations. As the name suggests, parties correspond to a part of the whole; a democracy should be able to identify itself in the interaction of the parties. But you can imagine a democracy—as in antiquity—without parties, even without elections: you can also draw lots for important functions among the citizens.
TP: The idea of “limits” or “borders” is an important one in your thought. How should we understand these two terms, and is there a connection between borders and education?
KPL: Border in a double sense (“limit” and “border”) plays an important role not only in my thinking, but also in thinking in general. Without drawing boundaries, we cannot think; every “definition” is such a boundary. Boundaries teach us to differentiate, and boundaries mark differences. But limits are also an instruction to act: up to here and no further. And I could go on. Limits can therefore always be postponed, changed, exceeded. Borders therefore arouse curiosity; they refer us to the neighbor on the other side. This is also important for education: boundaries never divide absolutely, but they show what is here and what is there. And in a political and legal sense, borders have been invented to protect the weak. The strong do not need limits. “No borders” used to be the battle cry of aggressors. I don’t know if it’s really any different today. Of course, one shouldn’t draw rigid, inhumane boundaries. But without borders, our thinking and the world sink into chaos.
TP: “Anyone who thinks is fundamentally intolerant.” Could you explain this interesting phrase, and is the work of the intellectual still relevant?
KPL: The sentence sounds provocative, but it isn’t. The thinker is concerned with, arguable, justifiable insights, with the claim to truth. Tolerance is a wrong principle in science. As Karl Popper already taught, one has to do everything possible to falsify hypotheses and theories, i.e., to show that they are false. Theories only acquire a certain plausibility if this does not succeed. Thinking can and must be intolerant because it is not about the tolerance of other opinions, but about the search for truth. Tolerance would mean that we would no longer be able to recognize errors. That would be fatal. Intellectuals have the task of making that clear. Tolerance is only required in questions of religious belief, not in questions of scientific truth.
TP: In the final chapter of your book, you call for a “new Enlightenment.” What will this “new” Enlightenment look like?
KPL: My point is that the new Enlightenment should build on forgotten dimensions of the old Enlightenment. In this context I recall a contemporary of Immanuel Kant, the German-Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn. For Mendelssohn, enlightenment, i.e., science and rationality, was one aspect of general human education. The other side was culture, i.e., art and emotion. We have to learn again to think together the many dimensions of man. That also means that education has to educate itself about itself.
TP: Are you hopeful about the future of the West?
KPL: The philosopher Günther Anders, who spoke about the “antiquity of man,” once remarked: Hope is just another word for cowardice. If the ideas of European humanism are important to us, we should do everything we can to assert these ideas; that does not exclude criticism and self-criticism. But if we want to say goodbye to them because we are falling back into tribal structures, or want to submit to the dictates of the digital industries, we can do that too. In both cases there is nothing to hope for.
TP: Professor Liessmann, thank you so very much for your time. It has truly been a great pleasure and honor to speak to you.
The featured image shows, “Portrait of a Young Scholar,” attributed to either Jan van Scorel or Maarten van Heemskerck, painted in 1531.
Grégoire Canlorbe continues his intriguing interviews with people who are forging new ways of understanding the world. This time around, he is in conversation with Emil O. W. Kirkegaard, who is a Danish intelligence researcher and freelance data scientist. Learn more at his website. Before you ask—there is no connection with existentialist philosopher, Søren Aabye Kierkegaard. However, Emil Kirkegaard’s great-grandfather, Harald Rudyard Engman, was a Danish dissident, anti-Nazi artist, who was exiled to Sweden during Word War II. The featured image is a work by Harald Engman. We are so very delighted to have Mr. Kirkegaard join us.
Grégoire Canlorbe (GC): Your name is notably associated with the study of stereotype accuracy—especially those stereotypes underlying immigration policy preferences in Danes. How would you sum up your research in this field?
Emil O.W. Kirkegaard (EOWK): It all began some years ago, around the time of my father’s 50th birthday (in 2014). I was visiting Sweden, because his girlfriend is Swedish, and my father decided to rent a house in Skåne, occupied East Denmark, for the birthday party.
Some years prior I had read Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, and recalled that he made some reference to the accuracy of demographic stereotypes. Checking out the supporting references, I found the same names repeated many times: Lee Jussim and Clark McCauley (all the cited works are in an edited book, Lee et al., 1995). I Googled the names of the authors and found a copy of a book chapter with the great title, The Unbearable Accuracy of Stereotypes. It contained a neat summary of the evidence, as it was at the time (Jussim et al., 2009).
I realized there was an entire scientific literature on this topic, one that wasn’t as stupid as my general impression of social psychology. Recall this was in the middle of the early years of the replication crisis, with priming results falling left and right. After that, I checked out the library (that is, Library Genesis, the Russian pirate library), and found that Lee Jussim had written a book in 2012, Social Perception and Social Reality: Why Accuracy Dominates Bias and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, and I immediately started reading it (Jussim, 2012). While reading this book, I immediately saw the connection to Bayesianism, which I was familiar with because I had long been reading the blogs from people in the Silicon Valley rationalism movement (focused on LessWrong in those days; now mostly reduced to the Scott Alexander-verse).
Say that you’re judging some person for some trait, say being anti-social. The prior belief is the initial guess about some individual based on whatever demographics one can immediately glance at, whether this is sex, age, country of origin, race, name, clothing and so on.
As such, the question of stereotypes is easy to attack scientifically: simply ask subjects to estimate the group means of various groups, and see how well these line up with reality. In fact, a decent sized, but haphazard, set of studies had been done like this, and they pretty much invariably turned up strong evidence of accuracy (the exception being when the data assumed to represent reality was questionable (see, Heine et al., 2008).
At the same time, I had just started studying immigrant outcomes in Europe, and had in my possession a big dataset from Denmark, where we had crime rates, mean incomes, rates of use of social welfare, educational attainment, and unemployment for some 70 immigrant groups in Denmark, as grouped by country of origin (or of their mothers (Kirkegaard & Fuerst, 2014).
In other words, I had the perfect criterion data to study stereotype accuracy in Denmark, and I knew that similar data existed for other European countries, so there was a way to expand afterwards (Kirkegaard, 2014b; 2015). I then found a way to buy survey data fairly inexpensively. We first conducted a pilot study and found quite large accuracy, despite recruiting unrepresentative people online (such as from my Facebook!).
I then managed to raise some funding from friendly sources, and our first big study was published in Open Psych journals in 2016 (Kirkegaard & Bjerrekær, 2016a; 2016c). I tried to do things right, from the start: large sample size (about 500), pre-registered analyses, and open science practices (open access, data, code, and reviewing).
As mentioned above, I was familiar with the replication crisis issues in social psychology and did not want to contribute to such poor practices. I also knew that my results would get attacked by leftists, and thus had to be extra strong to withstand scrutiny (Gottfredson, 2007; Kirkegaard, 2020). However, our results were crystal clear—the main aggregate stereotype correlated r = .70 with real differences—and the results were closely in line numerically with the findings that Lee Jussim had summarized.
The idea of linking this data to the immigration preferences was good, and obvious in hindsight, but it wasn’t mine. Noah Carl was the first to combine the two ideas in his 2016 paper, also in Open Psych (Carl, 2016). After reading his paper, I knew the next step forward was to measure all three variables in a single study: real group differences (insofar as government data can tell), stereotypes (estimates of those differences), and finally policy preferences for the same groups.
When looking at immigrant groups, it was obvious that popular opposition to immigrants was closely in line with the actual immigrant groups with high rates of social problems, whether crime or welfare dependencies (so in practice, against Muslim groups). I teamed up with Noah for a study like this, and we wanted to get it out somewhere “mainstream.”
So, we tried a bunch of social psychology journals; with not much luck. One editor, Karolina Hansen, at a Polish university, told us we needed to explicitly state, multiple times, that Muslims were not causing their own misfortunates, whereas our study was agnostic on this topic. I guess I should not be so surprised since, despite being in Poland, she has a Danish last name, so was probably infected by the Woke memeplex.
To return to the question, I would say that my work in this field has just begun, and I expect to publish a bunch more studies on immigrants, stereotypes and their links to intelligence. We are currently finishing up a big study in the Netherlands, with similar results. The last part is important, because from an intelligence research perspective, having accurate stereotypes is simply a manifestation of the general factor of intelligence, already strongly correlated with general knowledge.
So, one should see pervasive correlations between stereotype accuracy and intelligence. And, in fact, that is the case. Some left-wing psychologists and their media cheerleaders hilariously tried to brand this as a negative aspect of intelligence (Khazan, 2017; Lick et al., 2018; Sputnik News Staff, 2017).
GC: A well-known investigation of yours deals with the dataset of OKCupid’s users. You especially focus on the association of cognitive ability with self-reported criminal behavior—and with religiousness. Could you tell us more about it?
EOWK: Back in 2010, or thereabouts, I discovered the OKCupid dating site, and used it myself. The dating site really was very special, as no other dating site collected so much interesting data on their users. Most dating sites attempted only crude social matching, or even dumber things like astrological signs. However, OKCupid was started by a mathematician, and he had a better idea, despite having no background in psychology.
As a big fan of open science, I was wondering how to get a copy of the data for my own curiosity. I teamed up with a programmer to do a scraping (automatic download) of the website, and we managed to download data from nearly 70,000 users. Mind you, a lot of these profiles are essentially empty and not useful. But still, the dataset is amazing, and one can typically use about 10-30k users in a study, depending on which variables are desired and which subgroups.
Again, in the spirit of open science, we wanted to share this data with the world, so we sent our paper to review at Open Psych (Kirkegaard & Bjerrekær, 2016b). I don’t recall exactly how it happened, but some mainstream social psychologists started retweeting my tweet to the data (e.g., Brian Nosek of OSF), and eventually the SJWs joined in (Oliver Keyes was a notable nutty blogger who wrote some rambling blogpost on this, since apparently deleted), or maybe the other way around.
In any case, it ended up being a global media event of sorts, where we got featured in various big outlets: Wired, Forbes, Vox, Vice, even Fortune magazine. A guy I went to school with, in 2006, called me and wanted some input for an article he was writing for the Danish state media. The data on the website was really already public, and just required a free user (some of it). It’s just that when this data sits in 70,000 profiles, it is not as useful for analysis as when it is in a spreadsheet-type format. The task of scraping could be done by a chimpanzee, and involves visiting random profiles and copypasting the data into a big spreadsheet. In fact, the website itself wrote in its user agreement that users should consider the data public (“You should appreciate that all information submitted on the Website might potentially be publicly accessible. Important and private information should be protected by you”).
In the end, OSF deleted the copy of the dataset on their service, following a copyright complaint from OKCupid’s owners. Someone reported me to the Danish data protection agency, and they sent me some questions in a threatening manner, which I didn’t answer; and then after a few months, they gave up the case. The media never reported on this dropping of the case. So, in the eyes of the media and the public, it appears I was accused and presumed guilty of some crime; when, in fact, a case was not even filed against me in court.
Aside from all, the dataset is really quite something. This is because the questions on the site were mostly made by users themselves; and because of this, some of them asked about things that psychologists would not dare to ask about. They are also a lot more diverse in topics than what interests psychologists. We have published some studies looking at intelligence estimation based on some 14 questions with high g-loadings; and intelligence scores from these do in fact relate to religiousness, crime (self-reported, not optimal), political interest and so on, in the usual ways (Kirkegaard, 2018; Kirkegaard & Bjerrekær, 2016b; Kirkegaard & Lasker, 2020).
This is doubly interesting because the data was filled out by users knowing well that other users would be reading their answers; thus suggesting that social desirability bias should be large here. Evidently, it is not large enough to remove the usual associations. Later on, the website got bought out by Big Dating, that also owns Tinder and others, and the website is now a low quality clone of Tinder; a shell of its former glory. Sad! The most interesting remnant of the website, aside from this (unfortunately) partial copy of the site’s database (and others that exist), is that the founder wrote a book on some analyses he did (Rudder, 2015). It’s really a commercialization, and not a very good at that, of the old OKTrends blog. Fortunately, internet polymath Gwern has archived the blog, so people can, and should, read the unredacted analyses.
GC: Your university background is linguistics. Do you believe race differences may be manifested in language? What are your thoughts about Umberto Eco’s remark that “the language of Europe is translation”?
EOWK: I did a bachelor degree in linguistics, starting in 2010. Before that I studied philosophy for two years, but I was disillusioned with that department and the field, and did not finish the degree. I was always good with language in school, and since I was already interested in the philosophy of language, branching out to linguistics was not a big step.
Honestly, though, studying linguistics had a big advantage: there were no class attendance requirements, so I could avoid going to classes (these are a waste of time). This freed up a huge chunk of time, and allowed me to sleep during the day and work at the night, whenever this was practical (I have non-24 disorder). Passing exams was really mostly a matter of writing three essays (10-15 pages in length) every 6 months, one for each class that one took that semester. Each class was usually based on some book or some papers, which you read. All in all, writing a paper takes perhaps two days, editing included, and reading the required material takes maybe another three days; so we’re looking at about fifteen days of work every 6 months.
In Denmark, the state pays students a stipend to study, about US $800, and there is low-cost, subsidized student housing available too. So, this income is livable; and one can even invest some of it in Bitcoin on the side (Moon Inc.). The rest of the time, I used unwisely to play too much on the computer. But still a large proportion of the time I used to self-study psychology, genetics, statistics and programming. When I was doing the master’s (candidate) in linguistics, in 2015, I was already good enough that a high-profile professor wrote to recruit me for his startup in genetics. That ended my career in academia, not that I was keenly interested in pursuing a linguistics PhD.
So, with my unusual linguistics background aside, what about race and language? It’s hard to say because linguists are, generally speaking, non-quantitative people, and don’t look at these things, except in bland ways. There are some findings on how the physical shape of humans differ by race, and this affects the sounds they produce. Africans have notably larger lips and a broader nose (for cooling), and this results in slight differences in the sounds they make. I don’t think this is very important, however.
More interesting in the big picture are associations between culture and language (an extreme version is called linguistic relativity); and of course, some cultures are vastly more complex than others. Some languages are really quite simple, lacking words for most scientific concepts, some for even basic mathematics, like counting. I am not aware of any formal study of ethnic group IQs and their language features. Economists conduct these kinds of studies, trying to spot relationships between psychological traits and languages, and how this should be reflected in economic outcomes. Best thing they have come up with is that languages that allow dropping of pronouns are higher in some good stuff (Feldmann, 2019; He et al., 2020; Mavisakalyan & Weber, 2018).
There is a big dataset of language features called The World Atlas of Language Structures(WALS), which is used to study this stuff (the field is called linguistic typology). It has data for some 2700 languages last time I looked, and these are given geographical coordinates, countries, and so on. One could match this to ethnic IQs and national IQs, failing that, and maybe something useful would come out of this. Honestly, I have not looked, because I don’t think anything interesting will come out of it. I did take an initial look at the data from a quantitative perspective in a preprint never published (not even submitted anywhere, (Kirkegaard, 2021); I posted it as a formal preprint for the purpose of this interview).
The national data is rather small for languages, because of the extensive family relationships between them. So, the effective sample size is less than the number of countries. Biologists are familiar with this problem, and have standard phylogenetic regression methods to handle it, and linguists also (they do it in a worse way), but economists less so. I think it is better to proceed here with ordinary national IQs work, and expanding to the genetics of these, á la what Davide Piffer has been doing since 2013 (Piffer, 2013; 2015, 2019, 2020a, 2020b), and what we did in our big 2016 paper looking at the genetic ancestry of countries and their subdivisions (Fuerst & Kirkegaard, 2016). I am not familiar with Umberto Eco, so I have no comment on that quote.
GC: As an avowed proponent of eugenics, do you share the belief in COVID-19 pandemic’s purifying role? What is your assessment of the reservations on negative eugenics that Charles Darwin—while acknowledging the attenuation of natural selection in Victorian England—expressed in The Descent of Man? Namely that “the surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.”
EOWK: COVID-19 almost only kills old people who are no longer reproducing, so it has no eugenic or dysgenic effect. If one wanted to be really cynical, one could say that by killing off a bunch of unproductive people, it is easing the state’s welfare budgets, though causing large initial costs in healthcare.
I agree with Darwin. There is an uneasiness with realizing the problem of dysgenics and doing anything about it. Galton himself commented on this in his autobiography (1908): “Man is gifted with pity and other kindly feelings; he also has the power of preventing many kinds of suffering. I conceive it to fall well within his province to replace Natural Selection by other processes that are more merciful and not less effective.” So, how can we do things more mercifully? Many have thought about this problem (Glad, 2004).
I submit that we don’t need to do too much. Some countries have already managed to reduce the intelligence-fertility relationship to quite a weak negative or null association through existing social policies and cultural changes (Kolk & Barclay, 2019; Meisenberg, 2008; Reeve et al., 2018).
Aside from that, we have the tools at hand to reverse the problem: embryo selection and genome editing. With the latter, we can edit embryos to remove some known errors, insofar as these are known (typically well-known genetic disorders). The former technology has been here for years, but needs to be augmented with a modern genomics approach, and to get rid of the communist ethos that prevents this from happening (Anomaly, 2018; 2020; Anomaly & Jones, 2020).
Interestingly, survey evidence shows that large fractions of the world population, with notable differences between countries, are already in favor of such technology, and this fraction is increasing over time, just as it did when the original IVF technology emerged (Pew Research Center, 2020; Zigerell, 2019). On the technology side, we need to figure out how to produce a lot of egg cells (sperm are plenty!), and combine these with the best sperm cells if possible (sperm selection), nurture the resulting embryos, and pick the best combination of genes among the sibling embryos according to the best genetic prediction models.
This approach was outlined in Gattaca back in 1997, so this is hardly new. We just need to get serious about it. Galton suggested the same more than 100 years ago (“I take Eugenics very seriously, feeling that its principles ought to become one of the dominant motives in a civilised nation, much as if they were one of its religious tenets”).
If we let the power of capitalism achieve this, we can all have healthier, smarter, prettier, more creative children, and work towards improving our Kardashev score. Considering the current way Western elite thought is moving, there is probably not so much hope for this. Richard Lynn made similar forecasts in his 2001 book, Eugenics: A Reassessment.
GC: A nation’s collective intelligence partly lies in its average IQ. It also lies in its ability to network the various individual IQs within it in an efficient way, i.e., in a way allowing the nation to solve challenges and to prevail in intergroup competition. Efficient networking within a national brain notably includes intragroup competition for innovation—and the shifting of resources towards sound innovators, i.e., individuals bringing a way of thinking which is different, novel, but also more efficient than the previous admitted thought patterns. Do you sense a correlation between average IQ and efficient networking? Historically, which nation performed best in terms of intragroup cognitive collaboration?
EOWK: It’s a tough question because competing nations throughout history have not generally been so easy to compare, since they differ in population size, and change their borders and thus populations over time as well (e.g., modern Austria vs. Austria-Hungary vs. Greater Germany). The ultimate test of inter-group competition is warfare, and so one can look at which countries are very good at this, or have good standing militaries (Karlin, 2020). One can go beyond looking at who won a lot of wars.
One can look at efficiency specifically, and for World War II, there are some numbers here on the combat efficiency of soldiers from the warring states. Though these were calculated by the US army after the war, it probably won’t surprise many to learn that Nazi Germany’s soldiers were the most efficient in per capita terms. Specifically, the research computed the worth of a solider, setting the Nazi German one to 1.00, yields values of 1.10 Americans, 1.45 British, and >4 Slavic (Polish or Russian) (Kretaner, 2020; Turchin, 2007). Details of the calculations are hard to find, and I have been unable to find numbers for World War I or any other wars.
But I admit to not being a military historian and not having spent more than a few hours looking. Peter Turchin talks a lot about this collective efficiency. He uses the term, Asabiyafor this, from the great Islamic golden age thinker, Ibn Khaldun. We can make some guesses though. Group efficiency is higher when people have a feeling of belonging.
Most academic research finds negative effects of ethnic/race diversity on social trust (Dinesen et al., 2020), and given the iniquitousness of ethnic voting in democracies, and the endless anti-European hatred from the European left, it’s hard to disagree with a diagnosis of an overall negative effect of ethnic diversity on collective effectiveness.
We currently live in a time of extreme political polarization (mostly Europeans versus other Europeans in the same countries), mostly caused I think by the radicalization of the global media by communist Woke theories from academia. Zach Goldberg is doing great work on this topic (Goldberg, 2019a; 2019b).
China, on the other hand, is going strong in terms of collective efficiency, insofar as their human capital allows (corruption is endemic outside WEIRD populations; (Henrich, 2020)). All this aside, collective efficiency is positively affected by national average intelligence, and this shows up in any kind of analysis one does. Intelligence is at the individual level related to trust, honesty, competence at any job, patience and so on. So, it is not surprising that countries with smarter people outcompete others by large margins (Kirkegaard & Karlin, 2020).
GC: You dedicate yourself to exploring the relationship of personal names to factors like social status, intelligence, age, and country of origin. What are your conclusions at it stands? Do you subscribe to the Jewish belief that someone’s name predicts his destiny?
EOWK: I’ve never heard of this Jewish belief, but it is certainly true that names have associations with outcomes in life. You see when most social scientists discover such patterns, they immediately think it results from some kind of discrimination (the so-called second sociologist fallacy: any group difference is caused by discrimination by the above average groups). They devise experiments to show that people preferentially hire people with higher status names, and so on (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2004; Oreopoulos, 2011). Yes, I am sure one can find some evidence of this stuff. It goes back to the stereotype discussion initially. People act in a crudely Bayesian manner; they use whatever information about an individual they can find. Sometimes researchers give people only names, and so of course people will use such information until they can get better information. This is both rational and not a big mystery.
My entry into this topic was, again, due to nice data presenting itself, but in a less useful format. A Danish newspaper bought government statistics about first names of people living in Denmark, specifically about their average incomes, crime rates, and so on. This data were then published on a website, sort of. There was a search function and one could look up any name to see the stats for that name; but no way to download all the data.
Together with a friend, we figured out how to get the entire dataset behind this website. We then carried out a bunch of analyses of this. We confirmed the usual “S factor” pattern. Maybe we should call this Thorndike’s Rule, as he wrote in 1920: “a still broader fact or principle—namely, that in human nature good traits go together. To him that hath a superior intellect is given also on the average a superior character; the quick boy is also in the long run more accurate; the able boy is also more industrious. There is no principle of compensation whereby a weak intellect is offset by a strong will, a poor memory by good judgment, or a lack of ambition by an attractive personality. Every pair of such supposed compensating qualities that have been investigated has been found really to show correspondence.” (Quoted from Gwern’s page on correlations).
Anyway, in our data, names with higher mean incomes were also, on average, less crime prone, and worked better jobs and so on (Kirkegaard & Tranberg, 2015). So, for every name, one can score it on this composite measure of social status, or “general socioeconomic factor,” as I called it in 2014 (Kirkegaard, 2014a), in a study of countries. I got the idea from reading Richard Lynn and Gregory Clark’s books in short succession (Clark, 2014; Lynn & Vanhanen, 2012). Clark talks about how everyone is born with a latent, genetic score for this generalized social status; and the various social status indicators in life are an imperfect indicator of this (and the other part being mostly luck).
However, if one relies on last name data, one can actually see that the heritability of the latent general social status is about 75%. This finding replicates across many datasets from different countries, even in Maoist China. It’s really quite astonishing. I realized then, that the same thing can be said for countries and subpopulations inside countries, such as immigrant groups (Kirkegaard & Fuerst, 2014).
In our follow-up study, we were also able to show that average intelligence measured in the Danish army correlated quite well with this general social status of names (Kirkegaard, 2019). Personally, I don’t think having a funny name does much to harm one’s career; and it’s a quite simple matter to change it these days, if one really thinks so.
The fact of the matter is rather than funny parents give their kids funny names, and low status parents their kids low status names, and so on. This results in first names being differentiated by genetic propensity for social status, despite not being a family. One can even see dysgenics this way in our Danish data, as higher social status names had fewer “kids;” a kind of pseudo-fertility measure; and so these reduce their share of the population over time. Elite families dying out is a familiar finding for many historians.
GC: It is sometimes asked whether our ontological concepts (causality, identity, quantity, and so on) are intended in the human mind to relate to objective properties of the observed things. Or, on the contrary, only serve as molds, allowing the human mind to clarify, organize the empirical data; but having nothing to do with the content of reality. It is also asked whether the human mind is able to draw its concepts from an immaterial dimension reached through suprasensible perceptions. Or, on the contrary, is condemned to rely on itself—and on sensible experience. What is your take on such issues?
EOWK: That philosophy is a waste of time. For those few who still want to wade into this territory, I highly recommend Alan Sokal’s writings on ontological realism, quantum mechanics and postmodernism (Sokal, 2008; Sokal & Bricmont, 1999).
In my opinion, the best philosophy is written by working scientists or philosophers with a very close relationship to science (and I don’t mean doing some pop-neuroscience). For those wanting to put a label on me, I like to refer to myself as a neo-positivist scientific realist. This is essentially the view that evolution favors organisms that have some level of accuracy of their perception of the real world, which come equipped with a bunch of mostly adaptive cognitive biases (“tinted glasses”), and that through rigorous application of the scientific process, we can better see reality as it really is.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that social science is close to this scientific ideal, being staffed by the wrong people, with the wrong incentives. Social science would do better if we fired everybody who works there, and hired some random physicists to figure things out. This is essentially what Dominic Cummings did in order to win the 2016 Brexit vote, his blog has a bunch of stuff on this.
GC: Going back to linguistics, you may have heard of the proposition “Est vir qui adest.” Namely the anagram for Pilate’s question to Jesus, “Quid est veritas?” What does such connection inspire to you? Which one of Jesus or Pilatus is the chad—and which one the virgin?
EOWK: I generally don’t read fiction, so I am not overly familiar with the Bible stories. Considering that Jesus supposedly died as a childless Virgin (if we disregard the Mary possibility), and Wikipedia tells me that Pilate apparently had a wife, and we don’t know anything about any potential children. So, it boils down to the interesting question of whether Jesus was as holy as he claims to be (i.e., the Gospels claim him to be!), considering the base rate of fertility rates among cult leaders. On the balance of probabilities, I am going with Chad Jesus and the groupies theory, and may God forgive my atheist sins!
GC: Thank you for your time. Would you like to add something?
EOWK: These were some very far reaching questions. You certainly have a talent for interviewing. Maybe you can get a job at Playboy!
The featured image shows, “Nyboder with figures, evening,” by Harald Rudyard Engman, painted in 1931.
The Sana’a manuscripts were discovered in the Grand Mosque of the city of Sana’s, Yemen, in 1972, by construction workers, who gathered up all the old, rotting pages, stuffed them into potato bags, and left them beneath some stairs. Nothing was done until 1981, when Professor Gerd R. Puin, the leading scholar of Arabic orthography and Koranic paleography, undertook a systematic study. In this interview, Professor Puin speaks of the discovery and his study.
He is interviewed here by Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr, the current head of Inarah, the foremost institute for the study of early Islam. Inarah publishes a yearly collection of work, of which the most recent edition is now available. Dr. Kerr’s work has appeared frequently in the pages of the Postil, including his recent article on the true meaning of “Mecca.”
This is a truly a fascinating interview…
Unfortunately for English readers, the majority of the important work being done on early Islam is in German and French. Perhaps, in the future, this will be rectified by way of good translations of this important work, which has entirely rewritten the history of the beginnings of Islam.
The featured image shows a leaf from the collection of fragments housed at Stanford University. This is “Sana’a1 Stanford ’07,” recto, which dates to before 671 AD.
This month, we are especially honored to present this invigorating conversation with Professor Aurelio José Figueredo, who is a Cuban-American evolutionary psychologist. He is a Professor of Psychology, Family Studies and Human Development at the University of Arizona, where he is also the Director of the Ethology and Evolutionary Psychology Laboratory.
He has also been a long-time member of the interdisciplinary Center for Insect Science at the University of Arizona, which has regrettably been closed just this past month. His major areas of research interest are the evolutionary psychology and behavioral development of life history strategy, cognition, sex, and violence in human and nonhuman animals, and the quantitative ethology and social development of insects, birds, and primates. He is interviewed by Grégoire Canlorbe, on behalf of the Postil.
Grégoire Canlorbe (GC): Welcome, Professor Figueredo. It is a great pleasure to have you with us. You are notably known for your research on personality in nonhuman primates (including monkeys and chimpanzees). The Hominoid Personality Questionnaire was used as a quantifier of the big five personality traits in chimpanzees. Could you start by telling us more about it?
Aurelio José Figueredo (AJF): To be clear, the research on stumptail macaques, published in 1995, used a different list of behavioral traits which had been developed by Stevenson-Hinde, & Zunz (1978). The Hominoid Personality Questionnaire was used for our study of personality in chimpanzees in 1997, and was later extended to other Great Apes. That is an important distinction, because the findings of these two studies were different. The Great Apes all showed human-like personality structures resembling the human “Big Five,” although to varying degrees. The macaque monkeys showed a simpler pattern of three major factors; but whether this was a result of differences in the list of items used is unclear.
GC: A controversial hypothesis by J. Philippe Rushton is that fast life history – including traits like psychopathy – and a healthy, powerful mind, which is high in g, are negatively correlated at the individual level. Do you believe such correlation is indeed displayed – from lower animals to the most sophisticate of mammals?
AJF: There is something that we have called “The Rushton Paradox.” On the level of individual-differences, at least two meta-analyses (Woodley, 2011; Figueredo et al., 2014) have found weak and trivially small correlations between life history speed and general intelligence.
On the other hand, at the aggregate level of human social groupings or biogeographical regions, there is a strong positive correlation between slower life history strategies and aggregate cognitive abilities (e.g., Figueredo, Hertler, & Peñaherrera-Aguirre, 2020). This paradox was resolved by modeling the evolution of higher levels of aggregate intelligence as an emergent property of social groups rather than an individual-level adaptation (e.g., Figueredo et al., 2017).
In the 2017 paper that I cited, the one we called “Plants, Parasites, and People,” we constructed a model, which is a multiple-stage “Cascade Model,” that slow life history, first of all, is attributable to ecological factors; that we have warmer and wetter climate as well as higher parasite loads predicting human life history speed. Then, life history predicts a variety of other things in sequence before we get to intelligence.
For example, slow life history people are generally more cooperative – they have less crime and conflict within their groups. So, it creates a more cooperative society. And what we found out in other publications is that they are more strategically differentiated. They’re more diverse, both in their cognitive abilities and their life history strategies. Those are called the cognitive and strategic differentiation effort hypotheses.
What that cognitive and strategic diversification leads to is macroeconomic diversification where the society becomes, first of all, more productive as per Ricardo’s Law of Comparative Advantage – there’s a higher economic productivity consequent to having a greater degree of specialization and trade between the different specialists. It boosts the productivity of a society, and we use various indicators of macroeconomic diversification in that paper. And we show that the intelligence of a slow life history population is elevated indirectly, through this macroeconomic diversification, increasing their aggregate wealth, and thereby indirectly increasing their human capital.
Now see, once you increase your human capital, that leads to gains in IQ. But this kind of thing is called an emergent property of social groups, so that an individual can have individual traits like extraversion, or weight, or height, or anything like that, but an individual can’t have something like macroeconomic diversification all by himself or herself. That is not a property at an individual level. That is a property of an aggregate economy.
For example, I can’t have inflation. I can live in a society that has inflation, and I can be affected by inflation; but I don’t personally have an inflation rate, per se. Similarly, macroeconomic diversification is something that only exists at the aggregate level, and it is produced indirectly by a population’s aggregate slow life history.
Once you have that, it has the effect, and we documented that in this paper, of increasing the cranial capacity and the intelligence of the population. And that was our explanation of the Rushton paradox because it wasn’t just in one study. In study after study after study, the relationship between individual level IQ and individual level life history is trivially small. It’s extremely small, in many cases, not statistically significant.
Actually, J. Philippe Rushton, who passed away in 2012, is one of the people who were somewhat resistant to the results of such analyses. But this is what you get, like it or not. So, on an individual level, Phil Rushton was wrong. Now, I’m not saying this to bash Rushton. He was a very good friend. And I agreed with him on many things, but there are other things that we frankly argued about in a friendly way because we were friends for years. And we would argue – I’m sure you argue with your friends, that happens. And there are points of contention between you.
There is virtually no empirically-validated relation between individual IQ and individual life history strategy. But at the aggregate level, there is a very strong relation. And I sent you a couple of papers that show that between aggregate intelligence and aggregate life history. And that is the answer to the Rushton paradox. At least, that’s the answer that our group has proposed. As far as I know, nobody else would propose any solution to this paradox because most people are not even aware that there’s a paradox. But that is my answer to that question.
GC: A fundamental debate in psychology focuses on how knowing whether a certain behavioral pattern that is widespread, if not in all human societies, at least in most human societies (for instance, the prohibition of murder and incest), comes as the result of cultural selection. Or, on the contrary, it comes as the result of genetic selection – whether such a pattern was inherited from our primate ancestors, or designed in the Pleistocene era (or even later in the course of our species’ biological evolution). As an evolutionary psychologist, what criterion do you resort to when it comes to distinguishing between those of widespread (if not universal) behaviors due to cultural selection, and those due to genetic selection?
AJF: The framing of this question presupposes that “cultural selection” and “genetic selection” are two distinct and independent processes. Quite simply put, they are not. Since at least the 1980s, most mainstream theories of human evolution have incorporated the idea of gene-culture coevolution (e.g., Lumsden & Wilson, 1981; Richerson & Boyd, 2005), meaning that genetic changes produce selective pressures for cultural changes, and that cultural changes produce selective pressures for genetic changes.
You are correct that genetic selection continued to take place well after what is commonly presupposed to have been either in our distant nonhuman primate ancestors or in our own species during the distant past in the Pleistocene Era. Gene-culture coevolution has continued (and even accelerated) throughout the Holocene (Cochran & Harpending, 2009) and up to and including the Modern Era (Hertler et al., 2020).
One notable example is that of lactose tolerance, the ability of people like you and me to drink cow’s milk in adulthood. Now, all mammals are born with an enzyme called lactase, which digests the milk sugar, lactose, but they only have it for a certain period of time during infancy because mammals only feed on milk during their infancy, and afterwards no longer feed on milk. So, they don’t need the enzyme for lactose after that time. In certain human, not all human populations, but in certain human populations, that created a cultural adaptation because dairy farming is not genetic. They had a cultural innovation for dairy farming, and they substantially enhanced their nutrition and fitness.
And as a result of that, those populations evolved what’s called lactase persistence. In medicine it’s called lactose tolerance, but it’s really the persistence of that enzyme into adulthood. It is not distributed evenly throughout the world. Studies have been done, where, according to the archeological record, there has been like 5000 years of dairy farming.
So, in those areas, the gene for lactase persistence is highly prevalent. Where there has been very little to no dairy farming, you know, then, lactase persistence is absent. And for a long time in medical circles, this absence was called lactose intolerance and treated as a disorder. Because in societies derived from European or Mediterranean societies, it is rare to be lactose intolerant because everybody digests the milk from cows even as adults. Dairy farming is a clear-cut case of a cultural innovation – because nobody has ever identified a genetic mutation for dairy farming.
But wherever dairy farming took place over sufficient evolutionary time, and adults were drinking milk, a genetic mutation followed and spread throughout the population. I said cow’s milk, but it could be sheep’s milk or mare’s milk. It’s believed by some that mare’s milk was the first kind of non-human milk that we started drinking, out in the Eurasian steppes.
The proto-Eastern Europeans started doing that thousands of years ago. It is in those populations where that gene is not universal, but it’s highly prevalent because of the fitness advantages of being able to consume the milk of non-human animals even as an adult, even after you are past the breastfeeding period.
GC: Your name is attached to the claim that, instead of religion being the cultural cause of moral intuitions, the association between religiosity and moral intuitions comes as “a spurious correlation” caused by slow life history strategy. How do you develop that insight?
AJF: We developed and empirically supported that idea by testing various alternative structural equation models, some of which hypothesized religion as the cause of moral intuitions, and comparing them for best fit to the data that we had collected. The best model, by these empirical criteria, has life history strategy as the common cause of both. Both behavioral traits are thus ultimately reducible to that single biological cause, rather than one psychosocial trait causing the other.
GC: As a proponent of the multilevel selection approach, you probably know E.O. Wilson’s suggestion to leave behind kin selection theory (i.e., the claim that group selection only occurs at the level of groups of kin-related individuals), which he says has been refuted in Hymenoptera and a variety of other species (including homo sapiens). Do you believe kin selection, instead of being wholly inoperative, applies in some specific cases? What is your take on E.O. Wilson’s suggestion of a more comprehensive model of group selection – namely eusociality?
What has been refuted is the idea that kin selection is the sole selective pressure underlying Hymenopteran eusociality. Other forces have also been conclusively shown to be at work, and kin selection alone is neither a necessary nor sufficient explanation for advanced forms of sociality.
In our view, kin selection models have largely been subsumed under more complex models of multilevel selection, only applying to altruistic relations among very close kin. For more diffuse kin networks, such as in human hypersociality among quite distant relatives, or ultrasociality, as it is sometimes called (Turchin, 2016), other theories need to be incorporated. The relative degrees of genetic relatedness within-groups and between-groups (as captured in the statistic Fst, for example) is still a cardinal parameter underlying social evolution, but it is not the only consideration. Ecological factors, for example, also feature prominently.
GC: The cover of your very new collaborative book, Multilevel Selection, reproduces Lionel Royer’s famous painting of Vercingetorix surrendering to Caesar. What motivates such illustration choice? In group selection and life history terms, how do you explain that the West has been unique in producing such a variety of great men (both in history and fiction)? To name but a few, Achilles, Ulysses, Alexander the Great, Sulla, Julius Caesar, Vercingetorix, William the Conqueror, Cesare Borgia, Julius II, Davy Crockett, Rhett Butler, Tony Montana, Frank Castle.
AJF: That cover was selected because we wanted to emphasize the continuing importance of competition between groups as a persisting selective pressure in historical populations. That scene was a particularly dramatic one, illustrating a relatively recent outcome of intergroup conflict.
As far as the West producing a disproportionate number of “great men,” I am not really sure that is true. Most of the examples that you give are military leaders. To those, I would retort with Temujin son of Yesugei (the “Genghis Khan,” which was a title, not a proper name), who conquered the largest contiguous land-based empire in human history, and his General Subutai, arguably the greatest military strategist that ever lived! If we are instead talking about spiritual/philosophical leaders, I could counter with the cases of K’ung Fu-Tse (“Confucious”), Lao-Tsu (founder of Taoism), and Prince Siddhartha Gautama (“The Buddha,” founder of the eponymous religious philosophy). In what way are these lesser men than their Western counterparts? I am simply skeptical of the premise behind this particular question.
GC: The fall of the Soviet Union resulted in ending the intergroup tournament between America and Russia. How do sum up the Cold War’s intragroup consequences on America’s biocultural fabric? What happened to the latter once the war was over?
AJF: The fall of the Soviet Empire clearly reduced the intergroup selective pressures to which US populations are subjected. Our current conflicts are cases of “asymmetrical warfare” against substantially weaker opponents. There hasn’t been a major war among “Great Powers” for over half a century. Not that I am looking forward to having one, mind you, but it would definitely ratchet up the group-selection pressure, as by providing a true “existential threat,” which the current crop of Jihadis simply do not do, in spite of all the fear-mongering about them. In several of our recent publications, we have documented the decline in group-selected values in “Britannic” populations (meaning the successor states of the British Empire, including the USA) as a direct consequence of the reduced intensity of competition between groups over the Late Modern Era (reviewed in Hertler et al., 2020).
Within our collaborative writing group, including colleagues like Michael A. Woodley of Menie, these group cohesion factors and things like loyalty, altruism, martial valor, self-sacrifice are thought to be group-selected traits that, within the context of a multilevel selection model, have sometimes been able to partially overcome the forces of individual selection, which are disruptive of these traits. They have been able to partially counteract, in certain historical periods, the forces of individual selection, which oppose group cohesion. But this can happen only under conditions of intense inter-group competition. And when that intense inter-group competition declines, for whatever reason, then these traits erode. We have documented this trend during the relatively peaceful and prosperous period that followed the very harsh and conflict-ridden Little Ice Age.
The Little Ice Age had raged throughout most of the early modern era, starting in the mid 14th Century, actually early 14th Century. And that was a period of very intense competition, resource scarcity, famine, pestilence, warfare. But the Little Ice Age came to an end at about 1817, and things have been relatively benign since that time, and the prevalence of warfare has substantially decreased. The prevalence of inter-group competition has decreased, generally.
So, we have been trying to frame group selection within a broader historical perspective in that respect. A lot of people don’t get the fact that social conflict has been decreasing over the past couple of centuries – actually, Steven Pinker (2011) wrote about this phenomenon in his own book, that even though millions and millions of people died in World War One and Two, your per capita risk of dying, corrected for the total population size, was much less in those two wars than in most of the wars of the more distant past. The actual per capita rate of war mortality has plummeted. Also, the rate of criminal homicide – the rate at which we kill each other – has declined, and all social competition has been substantially reduced since the end of the Little Ice Age. And as a result, the amount of violence has decreased in European and European-derived populations.
But we’ve also – Michael and I – found, for instance, that a lot of these pro-social values, a lot of the idea of sacrifices for the security of the group have been eroding consistently since the 1800s. In fact, we’re just now revising the paper that we recently submitted that show the data for this as well. And we can send you that paper, if you’re interested. But right now, it’s still in the review and revision stage.
The Soviet Union, in my reading of history, was the last great existential threat that the United States faced since the defeat of Germany and Japan in WW2. That was a serious challenge. Had the Germans and the Japanese won WW2, the Anglo-American hegemony that had been exerted over the world since the end of the Napoleonic Wars would have been reversed, and the dominance and hegemony of the Anglo-American, Britannic people would have been essentially broken. Similarly, had the Soviet Union won the Cold War, the same thing would have happened. That was a real threat.
Once the Soviet Union fell, there was virtually no threat from anyone in the world to the global dominance of the Britannic people for a long time. And as a result, we have shown by various types of evidence that their group selected traits and social cohesion have been eroded, and are presently in a state of decay.
Now, this may not persist, because some people believe that communist China is going to be the next big threat to this Pax Americana, so to speak. I don’t know enough political science to know whether that’s true or not, but some people are saying that there’s going to be another threat, whether there will be a cold war, or a hot war, or any kind of war is unknown. I have no way to predict that. But if that should happen, you will see a resurgence of this kind of nationalism and this kind of group cohesion in response – with respect to the external threat.
But without an external threat, the forces of group selection cannot overcome the forces of individual selection. Individual selection puts a premium on self-interest and not group welfare. And as a result, those are the evolutionary conditions that lead to the proliferation of individually-selected people and the erosion of group cohesion. So, the fall of the Soviet empire was just the latest episode in this process. It may not be the last. I can’t tell the future with any degree of confidence because there are still uncertainties, for example, as to what’s going to happen over time.
GC: Anthropologist Robert Ardrey did not hesitate to characterize man as a territorial animal, most likely evolved from carnivorous African primates; and not – as was then the scientific consensus – from Asian herbivores. Unless in the case of defensive wars, those intended to expulse one or more intruders, Ardrey nonetheless refused to include war among the manifestations of the territorial imperative. Rather he thought war to fall within cultural selection. Do you follow him on that point – or do you judge war to fall within biological adaptation?
Besides, how do you account for those inter-ethnic differences in territoriality we witness today? With superorganisms in the West proving prone to tolerating an ever-higher proportion of foreign ethnicities on their soil; and, conversely, those in Asia and Africa exhibiting persistently high levels of territoriality.
AJF: First off, Robert Ardrey was not much of an “Anthropologist.” He was primarily a playwright and screenwriter for most of his life (a very good one, in fact!) He then wrote some semi-popular science books to cash in on the then-current fad of writing potboilers based on human evolutionary science and ethology.
Ardrey’s speculations notwithstanding, war is indeed a biological adaptation and is a straightforward manifestation of violent intergroup competition. We see it in many other species besides ourselves, as with many eusocial insects. We also have evidence for the antiquity of warfare in our own species, dating back to prehistoric as well as contemporary pre-state societies (see, Keeley, 1996), where it has been present nearly universally.
For example, the archeology of the European Neolithic is littered with the mass graves of the defeated, with bones clearly exhibiting signs of violent deaths. Many sites in Africa show similar patterns – so this is not limited to ancestral Europeans. Once again, in response to Ardrey’s position on the matter, recall that cultural and genetic selection are not mutually exclusive nor independent of each other; so his dichotomy there is both useless and obsolete.
With regards to current trends in demographics, I can only speculate. My first reaction is to see how long they last. The “superorganisms in the West” of which you ask might well be in the process of fragmentation as a result of the relaxation of the formerly intense group-selective pressures. However, as you know, in places like France, there is a substantial opposition to this. And in many other countries, there is a substantial reaction to these open immigration policies that they have had.
So, I don’t know that that is going to be viable long term, because a lot of the natives have been reacting to this quite strongly. And governments may be pressured to avoid this kind of thing, or at least, to limit the ethnic separatism that is practiced by some of these immigrant communities. For example, you know, I speak a little French – I’ve been to France several times – so I hope you don’t mind if we talk a little bit about the specific example of France.
I don’t think any French people, at least none that I know, and I know quite a few of them, object to the Muslims staying in France. They just insist that anyone, whether Muslim or not, has to adapt to French culture, French civilization, if one wants to live in France. You have to speak French, abide by the laws of France, and be a normal citizen of the republic. That’s what French people have told me. It is not that they don’t like Muslims per se, but that the kind of separatist impulses that some of these communities have are objectionable to French nationalism. That’s my understanding.
The idea that incorporating diverse cultural elements within one society is unfeasible, I don’t think that’s completely correct. To wit, if you look at European history, the Roman Empire lasted for over a thousand years, but I’m talking about the Western Empire. If you count the Eastern Empire, the so-called Byzantine Empire, that lasted – their collective existence might be close to two thousand years.
Those were empires that, although established by particular ethnic groups (the Romans), ruled over a very multicultural, diverse array of nations, for century after century. And they had a thriving civilization going. Now, were individual ethnic groups pursuing their own self-interest? Of course, they were. You know, everybody pursues their own self-interest, regardless of who it is. So, was there a certain amount of ethnic nepotism among all the groups involved?
Absolutely. That’s really what any evolutionist would expect. But does that mean that within an empire, you cannot coexist with these other groups for perhaps centuries, and perhaps even millennia? I would say the history of Europe would answer no, it is not impossible. You can have a multicultural empire that includes a diverse set of ethnicities, provided they are all guided by a common set of laws and principles. In that sense, I completely agree with the French attitude on this matter.
The Romans referred to this principle as Romanitas, or Romanness. And, the law was the law; and it was the law for everybody; and Roman law was strictly enforced. And after a few centuries, everyone in the Empire was granted Roman citizenship. At least, all free persons (not slaves) were granted Roman citizenship. And there were many emperors from Gallia, from Hispania, even some from North Africa that actually became Roman emperors. And they were all incorporated.
In fact, there was one semi-popular book I remember called, The Celtic Empire, in which the author made the case that Gallia, which is now France, became one of the dominant parts of the Roman Empire after the second century. It was a really critical part of the Empire. The Roman Empire wasn’t just Italians. So, I frankly don’t agree that ethnic homogeneity is absolutely necessary for a functional multinational society or state – what I’m calling an empire regardless of type of government. There have been plenty of examples where that has been made to work.
Another example, if you don’t want to think of Rome, is the so-called Inca empire, correctly called Tawantinsuyu, of the Andes in South America. They had a very multicultural empire. However, they had a brilliant road system, just like the Romans, and any province that rebelled or tried to practice separatism was crushed by the imperial army. Rebellion was not tolerated. You had to follow the rules, and you had to actually be part of that Andean state. And if not, there were dire consequences. So, a certain degree of conformity to social norm was enforced both by the Romans and by the Andean people. And they both were very good examples of multinational states, multi-ethnic states that lasted with some degree of stability, literally for centuries.
So, even though I’m an evolutionist and yes, genetic relatedness is an important factor in group selection, it is not the only factor. It is not necessarily the predominant one. And it is not strictly necessary, as some theorists have argued. The historical evidence indicates that nationalism, as we know it today, arose in the 19th century. It – that ideology of nationalism – was not even a coherent doctrine in Europe before that. I’m not saying there aren’t some instincts for ethnic nepotism. Those clearly exist in every human group; everywhere, you find ethnic nepotism.
But the kind of radical nationalism that Europeans came to accept in the 19th century is a recent historical invention, and it may be degraded over time as a result of these different social realities. I think this phenomenon was actually caused by the imperial expansion of the European powers; the fact that they incorporated ethnically different groups into their empires; often against the objection of the natives; but they incorporated these diverse groups into their societies.
So, for example, to use the case of France again, you have a lot of Algerians in France. The Algerians never invaded France. France invaded and conquered Algeria. That’s historical fact. So, we have Algerians now in France. Just understand – you asked for them, right? They did not voluntarily do this. And it’s not just like that in France, but in all the formerly imperial powers. They just incorporated these other people, created worldwide empires and global trade networks. So, that automatically incorporates these people within your society whether you acknowledge it or not.
So, now the question is how to deal with these diverse groups – and how to incorporate them as part of an orderly society. I believe that historical evidence indicates that that is possible.
But you cannot tolerate the separatists. This kind of multiculturalism philosophy that’s being preached nowadays, where everybody is just pursuing their own ethnic interests and there’s no loyalty to any kind of higher power, is not feasible in the longer term. But is it possible to create a true multicultural state where everybody engages in a cooperative network and everybody plays by the same rules? I think that historical evidence indicates that yes, it is possible. But you have to be firm. You can’t be weak. Only strong empires can do this.
GC: You challenge the idea that interindividual romantic relationships are primarily influenced by communication. You instead suggest that life history strategies in partners serve as the most fundamental force in shaping the outcome of their relationship. Could you come back at that issue?
AJF: Again, I tend to favor more fundamental and biological explanations to purely psychosocial and behavioral ones. “Communication” is only a proximate cause, whereas life history strategy better specifies the ultimate selective pressures that might have led to that behavior. Specifically, the need for biparental care in species with altricial offspring (such as our own) requires long-term bonding between fathers and mothers for the purpose of raising their offspring. It is that biological function that requires the communication. I am not downplaying the important role of supportive communication in maintaining human romantic relationships, but merely trying to explain why it is there.
GC: Thank you for your time for this enlightening conversation. Is there anything else that you would like to add?
AJF: I should point out that all the work that you have attributed to me was instead the work of many collaborative efforts over the years, and the role that my coauthors have played, as well as the massive contributions that they have made, should not be downplayed. I just wanted to acknowledge that before we finish. The citations provided present only a partial list of those collaborators. I think this was a very good interview, and I thank you for being honest, and as you said, not hostile. I don’t feel on the spot like you’re trying to catch me in something as some interviewers have tried to do in the past. And I appreciate your being open-minded.
The featured image shows, “Vercingetorix jette ses armes aux pieds de Jules César (ercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar),” by Lionel Royer, painted in 1899.
This month we are greatly honored to present this interview with Professor Andrzej Waśko, the foremost authority on Romantic literature in Poland. He is the author several important books and currently serves as the advisor to Mr. Andrzej Duda, the President of Poland. Professor Waśko is here interviewed by Dr. Zbigniew Janowski, on behalf of the Postil.
Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): Let me begin this conversation with a question about your recent article about the popular band Queen. You are a scholar of Polish Romanticism. You wrote your first major work, which received a national award, on Adam Mickiewicz (the prince of Polish Romantics) and your second on Polish conservative Romantic Zygmunt Krasinski. The role they played in Poland (along with the third major poet Juliusz Slowacki) may be compared to Byron, Shelley and Keats in England.
All of them belong to an epoch which existed two hundred years ago. The English rock group Queen was popular in the 1970s and 1980s. How come a professor of literature writes about about popular music?
Andrzej Wasko (AW): These topics are not as far apart as they seem. The aesthetic revolution, called Romanticism, which broke out in Europe after the French Revolution, began earlier with the rehabilitation of popular songs and with the ballads of Goethe and Schiller; and later with Wordsworth and Coleridge, Mickiewicz and others.
A similar phenomenon occurred in the 1960s, in the genre of popular song on the “lower” level of culture. Joan Baez and other folk music performers began their careers with the same or similar folk ballads. At that time, the post-war generation, largely made up of university-educated workers’ children, was knocking on the gates of the middle class. These people needed their mythology and it was provided, at least to some extent, by popular music – Joan Baez, as already mentioned, Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan, and many others.
Here, I see a certain analogy to the situation that took place in the 19th century. Romanticism gave a cultural identity to the bourgeois and popular masses that began to build modern nations on the ruins of class-based society. The history of pop music is the story of what happened to society in the second half of the 20th century. Besides, today there is a radio in every car. Popular songs are a topic that a literary historian can talk to a taxi driver about.
ZJ: Your last remark reminded me of Allan Bloom’s conversation with a taxi driver. This is what he wrote in The Closing of the American Mind (1987): “A few years ago I chatted with a taxi-driver in Atlanta who told me he had just gotten out of prison, where he served time for peddling dope. Happily, he had undergone ‘therapy.’ I asked him what kind. He responded, ‘All kinds—depth-psychology, transactional analysis,’ but what he liked best was ‘Gestalt.’ Some of the German ideas did not even require English words to become the language of the people. What an extraordinary thing it is that high-brow talk from what was the peak of Western intellectual life, in Germany, has become as natural as chewing gum on American streets. It indeed had its effect on this taxi-driver. He said that he had found his identity and learned to like himself. A generation earlier he would have found God and learned to despise himself as a sinner. The problem lay with his sense of self, not with original sin or devils inside him. We have here the peculiarly American way of digesting Continental despair. It is nihilism with a happy ending.”
One may draw many conclusions from Bloom. One such is that once high-brow ideas fall to a level of ordinary people, the inevitable result is nihilism. Let me invoke the lyrics of Queen:
Empty spaces. What are we living for? Abandoned places. I guess we know the score. On and on. Does anybody know what we are looking for? Another hero, Another mindless crime Behind the curtain. (“The Show Must Go On”).
Queen’s song and Lennon’s “Imagine” – “no heaven, no hell” – can be said to repeat the basic building blocks of Existentialism, especially the ideas we find in Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre. De Beauvoir and Sartre considered the world without God to be a reason to rejoice. Camus, on the other hand, was deeply troubled by it; he understood that in such a world the only jurisdiction of philosophy is suicide. This is not different from what we find in Queen: “does anybody know what we are looking for?” Are these songs existentialist philosophy of the Parisian cafes turned nihilistic?
AW: The fact that the songs you quote and probably many others show traces of the existential philosophy of Parisian gurus, such as Sartre and Camus, seems very likely to me. Certainly, Lennon welcomes the vision of an axiological void and proclaims it as “good news,” just like Sartre.
Both the philosopher and the ex-Beatle call for a revolution, each in their own way. In practice, however, Lennon’s way turns out to be more effective, because his song is pretty, it reaches the masses and moves their emotions. But the lesson Lennon gives his followers leads to nihilism – in a world where there is nothing to die for – “nothing to kill or die for” – there is nothing to live for.
This was understood by Camus and I think also Freddie Mercury, whose lyrics, on the contrary, are not cheerful. “What are we living for?” – in a world devoid of essence, without absolute values and absolute norms. Of course, this is also existentialism for the people. But at the same time it is a lamentation over a world ruled by nihilism.
Taxi drivers I speak with in Poland are more likely to lament and never say anything about psychology, which is otherwise a very fashionable field at universities in Poland. Rather, it is the establishment that thinks like the Atlanta taxi driver Bloom writes about. This is pure and self-conscious nihilism – but it is rather rife among teachers and students at universities.
ZJ: You made a connection between the aesthetic revolution of Romanticism and the post-French revolutionary world. In 1833, Benjamin Disraeli wrote in his Diary: “My mind is a continental mind… It is a revolutionary mind.” What Disraeli is referring to is the influence Romanticism had on him. What made Romanticism such a powerful social force?
Second, for all the greatness and beauty of Romantic poetry, Romanticism turned out to become a political outlook which shuttered the old order no less than the French Revolution. Is there a connection between the slogans of the Revolution – equality in particular – and the Romantic exaltation of self-consciousness as the source of truth and a fountainhead of artistic creativity?
AW: What made Romanticism a social force was certainly the democratization of the language of literature and art, an example of which is the turn to ballads. In his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth tells us that poetry should speak the language that people actually use in their lives. The explanation lies in the saturation of art with emotions. Wordsworth and Coleridge talk about this in the Preface as well. This is the hallmark of Romantic literature – unlike the classics, the speaking subject in romantic poetry is always in a state of some emotional agitation, a mood he then communicates to his audience.
This is simple, and pop culture of the 20th century has similar features – it expresses the emotions and infects its audience. And contemporary people living in an extremely rationalized world, living in Le Corbusier’s “machines for living,” do not become machines – on the contrary, they want to react to the coldness of social institutions in which they find themselves. They want to cry or feel euphoric. They want to feel “like gods,” or lose themselves in a “great whole” – a service provided by, along with drugs, ecstatic music. In this regard, pop music of the second half of the 20th century uses some elements of Romanticism in an intensified and simplified form.
Your second question concerns individual self-realization and creation, which are inventions of literary Romanticism. Based on idealistic German philosophy, Romanticism builds the concept of the subject as creator – of poetry (from the Greek poiesis – creation), but also a creator of various geniuses. Napoleon changed the world thanks to his genius. Byron changed the world thanks to his genius, too. It’s a status of the self in society and in politics. It is a challenge for everyone, including me. Perhaps this is what Disraeli thought.
ZJ: Should we take the idea of genius to mean a way of democratization of politics as well? I do not mean democratization in the sense of universal suffrage and an electoral system; but in the sense of opening the public and political realm to people who in the past could never see themselves as social or political leaders. Being a genius became a form of political passport, if you will. It provided a new form of socio-political legitimacy. Poets became national bards, unelected national leaders.
AW: Yes, both the cults of genius artists (“prophets”) and the cults of charismatic political leaders have something to do with democratization in the sense you suggested. The genius embodies the characteristics of the community that recognizes him as its representative, as the medium of its thoughts and feelings, as the embodiment of the aspirations and goals it pursues. As Rzewuski put it: “There is a sympathetic bond between a genius and his people.”
ZJ: You mentioned Byron, an artist, who saw himself as having a social, political message. Let me quote here a stanza from Childe Harold:
Hereditary bondsmen! know ye not Who would be free themselves must strike the blow? By their right arms the conquest must be wrought? Will Gaul or Muscovite redress ye? no! True, they may lay your proud despoilers low, But not for you will Freedom's altars flame. Shades of the Helots! triumph o'er your foe! Greece! change thy lords, thy state is still the same; Thy glorious day is o'er, but not thine years of shame.
This is his message to the Greeks, calling on them to rekindle past greatness, to shake off the yoke of the Turkish oppression. This kind of message, formulated by poets, seems to be common for the Romantic period. We find it also in Juliusz Slowacki’s Agamemnon’s Tomb.
Could one say – call it a wild guess, if you want – that Romanticism created a path to a new political reality, wherein artistic geniuses (poets, writers, painters) but also all kinds of political charlatans, madmen and social reformers could call on a nation, or the world, to action? First it was done under the banner of liberation (as in Greece), or unification (as in Italy, or Germany), and later, in the 20th century, as a call to a regeneration of national spirit (as in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy). Now, in the 21st century, we hear an echo of national slogans: “Great China,” “Making America Great Again,” “Poland – A Great Project” (the name of an annual conference), and so many others.
Politics, before the American and French Revolutions, was a domain of one class, the upper class. But 19th century Romanticism changed it.
AW: Yes, Romanticism paved the way for charlatans as well; it gave them a certain role model. But you cannot blame the Romantics for the actions of charlatans like Hitler or Mussolini, who adopted the dress of geniuses. Otherwise, you could then also accuse Rubens or Rembrandt of paving the way for picture forgers. Morally and politically, everyone is responsible for himself.
Also, we should not toss together all political slogans designed to mobilize supporters with references to the greatness of the nation or the greatness of some future project. This is just commonplace in the politics of our times. Ordinary people want to feel that they are participating in some great collective endeavor. And PR specialists give it the form of slogans. I do not see anything wrong with that, although of course in totalitarian regimes it has a different dimension and can be terrible. But don’t overdo your concerns, remembering what the difference is between the present conditions and the regimes of the kind we lived in before 1989.
ZJ: One often links Romanticism with nationalism. There is a good reason to accept the assumption that the latter sprang from the former. When you read books about Romanticism, you come across a number of terms or expressions that their authors use to characterize Romanticism. Here is a handful: genius (that is, someone who defies rules by his untrammeled will), individual spirit, nation, mythological history of a people, authenticity, creative self-expression, self-assertion, the worship of heroes, and contempt for reason.
The genius of Romantic poets notwithstanding, reading their exaltation one gets the impression that this form of emotional exhibitionism, if you want, could happen only among people who have lost their minds, who rejected Reason, as they did. They were the first ones to believe that they can create nations, a people’s soul. As Herder once wrote, “A poet is a creator of a people; he gives them a world to contemplate; he holds its soul in his hand.”
Add messianism to this, which is a consequence of such a belief, and you have a fuller picture – we no longer deal with an individual genius who has risen above others but a nation which believes – rightly or wrongly – that it has a mission, that it has been given a special task to save others, or save even a civilization itself. Since there are no clear rational criteria for judging reality, the political realm must, it seems, become an “irrational” domain operated by individuals – leaders, if you will – who believe that they can lead the nation. As it happens, sometimes things went very wrong. In view of this, could you say a few words about the connection between Romanticism and nationalism.
AW: First, Herder’s words are the words of a literary critic, who is referring not so much to the times of his own epoch, but to the beginnings of civilization. “Philosophers are the children of civilization, but the poets are its fathers” – this is how what he says should be understood. The original language of humanity was, according to Herder, poetic language. Prose and the attitude to the world based on reasoning came later – Homer preceded the birth of philosophy in Greece.
The Romanticism of the early nineteenth century was an apology for poetry understood as the original path of cognition, earlier than philosophy and science. You can partly agree that something like creative imagination actually exists and at times helps to solve some problems that seem unsolvable at first glance.
A feature of political Romanticism, as Carl Schmitt understood it, was the transfer of certain aesthetic rules and preferences to the field of policy thinking. If there is one language and one German literature, there should also be one German state. Genius can work in different fields. Thus, a brilliant poet plays a role within his own national community, etc. Under Byron’s influence, in the first half of the 19th century, extreme (that is, pre-20th-century existentialism) individualism wen hand-in-hand with dandyism, with mal du siècle, boredom (ennui), and the search for strong impressions.
All of this goes beyond nationalism; and all of it can be an object of criticism – and has been repeatedly criticized from the point of view of reason. But the Romantics were right in that man is not (and never will be) a fully rational being. If the process of modernization, which began in the West in the 17th century, is identified (as Max Weber would have it) with the process of rationalization of social life, Romanticism is an expression of rebellion against this rationalization, a rebellion rooted in the irrational characteristics of human nature. And it did not end in the 19th century. In the 1960s, it found expression in popular culture.
ZJ:Isaiah Berlin, in a series of articles on Romanticism, offered a number of insights that can explain why the currents hidden in Romanticism became pernicious.
One could distinguish several layers which created conditions that later led to the horrors of the 20th century, beginning with the sense of humiliation that stems from another nation’s cultural superiority. Such is the case of Germany vis-à-vis France, and the disruption of the old way of life, as happened in Russia under Peter the Great and, to a lesser degree, in Frederick the Great’s Prussia.
The old class becomes displaced and psychologically unfit, and creates a new synthesis, a new vision or ideology that explains and justifies resistance to forces working against the convictions and ways of life of the old class.
Finally, when a nation is at one with other forces, such as race and religion, or class and nation, we have all the conditions that can turn into a political force represented by the State. “One form of these ideas was the new image of the artist,” writes Berlin, “raised above other men not only by his genius but by his heroic readiness to live and die for the sacred vision within him… It took a more sinister form in the worship of the leader, the creator of a new social order as a work of art, the leader who molds men as the composer molds sounds and the painter colours.”
Heine, as Berlin explains, foresaw the future: “these ideologically intoxicated barbarians would turn Europe into a desert,” writes Berlin, quoting Heine, “restrained neither by fear nor greed… like early Christians, whom neither physical torture nor physical pleasure could break.”
To be sure, the legacy of Romanticism was not as morbid among the English, French, Russians or Poles as it was among the Germans. However, in the case of the Poles, and perhaps Russians, Romanticism survived as the worship of poets as national bards, men who — because of later communist oppression – filled a political void. (Mickiewicz and Slowacki, for example, are buried alongside Polish kings at Wawel Castle in Krakow). Now that Poland is a free country, is there as much room for the adoration of poets as there was before?
AW: Isaiah Berlin, as well as other well-known analysts of nationalism in English-speaking countries – Hans Kohn, Ernest Gelner, Eric Hobsbawm, Zygmunt Bauman – built the following historical sequence: romanticism – nationalism – Hitler.
All these thinkers had roots in Central Europe and brought their trauma to Anglo-American sociology from Central and Eastern Europe. It was a trauma of the persecution of Jews that ended in the Holocaust.
A similar interpretation was applied after World War II by the Communists in the German Democratic Republic. Because the roots of Nazism were said to be rooted in German Romanticism, in Jena, where the “Romantische Schule” was born, the Communists demolished part of the historic old town with the old buildings of the university and erected a gruesome modernist tower in its place, where they built a new communist university to break away from the traditions of Fichte and Novalis.
In reality, this was all much more complicated. In Poland, for example, there was a sharp conflict between the ideology of modern nationalism, represented by Roman Dmowski, and the Romantic tradition, which this nationalist and social Darwinist openly fought in his writings.
The Nazis, with whom, moreover, Polish nationalism had nothing in common, during the occupation fought fiercely against the memory of Polish culture, led by Chopin’s music and Mickiewicz’s poetry, whose monument in Krakow was demolished in August 1940. How do these facts reconcile with the theory of Romantic sources of nationalism and Nazism?
The claim that Romantic writers (but not only Romantic ones) contributed to the awakening of “nationalism,” or simply national consciousness among Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Serbs and Croats, seems obviously true. Pushkin, who wrote anti-Polish poems after the Russians suppressed the November Uprising in 1831, could also be called a Russian nationalist. So what?
The obsessive tracking down of nationalism leads only to the belief that communism was better in Eastern Europe, “threatened by nationalism.” However, it is also true that Polish literature of the 19th century, including Romantic literature in the first place, was the main bridge leading to the assimilation of the Jewish intelligentsia in Poland.
The poetry of the Romantics, both great and smaller but equally popular, was something that could fascinate in Polish culture and which could be relatively easy to accept, along with language, regardless of any other differences. Therefore, educated Jews got Polonized in the nineteenth-century; and among writers and historians of Poland of the next century we have many of them.
ZJ: The post French Revolution world created two categories: Liberalism and Conservatism. In his essay on Alfred de Vigny, sometimes referred to as, “On Conservative and Liberal Poets” (1838), John Stuart Mill makes a list of characteristics of Conservative and Liberal literature. One of the functions of Liberal poets or writers is, as Mill states, “to lay open morbid anatomy of human nature,” which is “contrary to good taste always.”
In short, Liberalism created a new realm of literary possibilities, where vices can no longer be swept under the rug, treated as vices, but as ingredients of human nature, which should not shock us. In fact, we should find enjoyment in reading about characters who embody these vices.
What comes to mind as examples supporting Mill’s interpretation are writers such as, Balzac, Zola and Dostoevsky; but above all Ibsen; hisA Doll’s House, where “sweet hypocrisy” is exposed for what it is. Yet Nora, who breaks social and moral norms, is by far a more sympathetic character than her husband, and as much as we may not like her decision. But it is impossible to feel sympathy toward her husband. Anna Karenina is another great example. And, let’s remember, Tolstoy came to regret writing it.
If Mill is right with respect to what constitutes the elements of Conservative and Liberal literature, is the liberal imagination an indisputable winner in this literary contest? Good literature is no longer a teacher of virtues and vices, has no unambiguous moral message; it is not supposed to give us moral warnings.
AW: The moral message, apart from moving emotions and satisfying the taste, was mandatory for a classical poet, of the type that reigned in all our literatures, before Jean-Jacques Rousseau, although he himself was not a poet and his La Nouvelle Heloise has a built-in moral core. Rousseau paved the way for “liberal poets,” because he recognized that it is not the individual who is morally responsible for evil. Rather, evil comes from a society corrupted by civilization. Byron’s heroes (and this is his influence), who commit crimes, are at the same time victims of the existing social order and the embodiment of interpersonal relations in this system.
Similarly, we can sympathize with Nora and Anna Karenina. It is Rousseau as a philosopher who is responsible for this, and since he is also one of the founders of liberalism, Mill’s opinion makes some sense. But literary currents are not simple equivalents of modern political ideologies. Dostoyevsky with his Demons is probably a conservative writer. But was Chateaubriand conservative or liberal? And Mickiewicz?
However, Mill’s biographer, Nicholas Capaldi, suggested that the roots of Mill’s argument for freedom of speech can be traced to the Romantic concept of imagination, without which an argument such as this could hardly be made: why should I allow you to say something I disagree with, unless I believe that your soul, your self, can express a truth, something which reason alone – common to us and praised by Enlightenment thinkers – cannot.
Here is what Capaldi says:
“Mill will remind us that Coleridge is the English bearer of the continental tradition, and especially of German Romanticism… More specifically, Mill will argue that modern liberal culture, as best exemplified in England, cannot be adequately explained and defended except with the resources of Romantic continental thought… The French Revolution of 1789 had momentous symbolic significance for liberals everywhere. It became the symbol of the overthrow of feudalism and the dawn of a new day of freedom. Liberals as well as conservatives in Britain were later horrified by the excesses of the revolution, but the destruction of feudal privilege was looked upon as a necessary prerequisite for a truly free and responsible society.
“The stress on imagination, as opposed to intellect, is a familiar Romantic theme. It reflects the nineteenth-century rejection of the eighteenth-century’s narrow rationalism… The first consequence of this view of the primacy of imagination is the recognition that ultimate values are apprehended through imagination… One of the reasons Mill will be so adamant about opposing censorship and encouraging debate is that it is only in the imaginative re-creation, the rehashing, of the arguments that we come to understand truly the meaning of ultimate values and to make that meaning a vital part of who we are.”
Is there anything else in the realm of political ideas that belongs in the Romantic tool-box?
AW: Creative imagination as a tool for learning about the world is undoubtedly a hallmark of romantic trends all over Europe, but these trends were very diverse, and the ways of understanding them were different. If the German readings influenced Coleridge, as Professor Capaldi reminds us, it must be remembered that earlier German translations of Edmund Burke’s On the Revolution in France inspired the Schlegel brothers and their entire generation in Germany. Thus, the exchange between England and the Continent was mutual. Liberalism is older than the Romanticism, as is republicanism, which is important to Poles. So, there were liberal and conservative romantics, and the great Polish romantic, Juliusz Słowacki, described himself as “republican in spirit.”
Hence Mill’s brilliant thought that the genesis of the idea of freedom of speech must be the Romantic idea of imagination, may be true in some cases, but historically speaking not at all. In short, the specific influence of Romanticism on the understanding of politics may consist in giving politics an eschatological dimension (messianism), in referring to pre-philosophical national traditions as an expression of the community spirit, in the observation that the poet has a special type of power – over the work he creates and over their recipients – and that authority should have such a character in general, and that the poets thus should be the charismatic leaders of the nation.
Let me add that in the 19th century the cult of poets (Mickiewicz, Słowacki, Krasiński) gained political significance in Poland; and in the 20th century, in popular culture, we are dealing with something analogous, when, for example, Bono from the band U2 speaks about politics, and all world agencies keep repeating what he utters.
ZJ: Nihilism which we’ve mentioned was not the only social worry of the second half of the 20th century. One can argue that hedonism is as pernicious as nihilism. I would like to invoke another song by Queen, “I Want It All;”
I’m a man with a one track mind, So much to do in one life time (people do you hear me) Not a man for compromise and where’s and why’s and living lies So I’m living it all, yes I’m living it all, And I’m giving it all, and I’m giving it all, It ain’t much I’m asking, if you want the truth, Here’s to the future, hear the cry of youth, I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now, I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now.
Each time I hear it, I think that this song is the utmost expression of hedonism, which is a product of an infantile mind. Only children want it all and want it now. It is their perception of time which makes them want to satisfy their wants and needs right away. They want immediate gratification. Adults know that you can’t have it now. But there are more serious problems that go beyond the song. First, immediate gratification of all desires would be deadly for moral discipline. Liberalism is the only political philosophy that tells us that we have a right to satisfy our wants. Would you agree that this kind of thinking – nihilism mixed with hedonism – is what our world today is made up of.
AW: I don’t know if this song is so clearly about a hedonistic attitude. Your question about modern hedonism is much more serious. Westerners, when they believed in God, wanted the salvation of their souls – eternal life beyond this world. Then, under the influence of humanism and the Enlightenment, happiness became their goal. Happiness on earth, not in the afterlife. But that happiness did not have to be immediate; it could be the achievement of some ambitious goal or perfection (per aspera ad astra), or the pursuit of perfection itself. In the end, happiness was equated with pleasure, which was independently invented by the Marquis de Sade and 19th-century Liberals. It appealed to simple people, because pleasure is not some abstract ideal, but something concrete, sensually experimental. And why shouldn’t we experience it too, here and now?
This ethical turn, which took place in the West in the 19th century, seems to be something permanently present in people’s attitudes to life today. In the second half of the 20th century, it coincided with the triumph of technology and capitalism, which turned out to be capable of producing an inexhaustible amount of consumer goods; that is, those that both satisfy our needs and provide us pleasure. Since constant enjoyment has become easy and readily available for all, a new hedonism has indeed spread in the society of “well-being.” It is based on the pursuit of immediate satisfaction of our whims. And after satisfying them, new needs appear, which are also immediately satisfied, and so on.
Mandeville noted, as early as the 18th century, that people who are accustomed to luxury buy more things that, objectively speaking, they could live without. In this way, which may not be beneficial to themselves in the long run, they nevertheless make money for the craftsmen and merchants, who supply them with these luxuries.
So, the need for pleasure drives the economy to work. The capitalism of our time creates these artificial needs in people in a systemic way, stimulating them through advertising, and by presenting the model of a human being present in pop culture, whose success lies in the fact that he has everything, here and now.
The contemporary ideal image, spread in commercials, in television series about the lives of millionaires, in photo essays about celebrities, is therefore the image of a hedonist – an ideal, i.e., the ever-insatiable consumer. So, hedonism drives sales – that is, the entire economy – and thus promotes it.
The problem is that all civilizations of the past that fell into this trap collapsed. While we can make our toys endlessly, we are not in danger of collapsing because of the wear and tear of our accumulated goods – waste was condemned by moralistic people since antiquity, but that doesn’t help.
The process of ceaselessly satisfying an appetite that is continuously, artificially stimulated, is destructive in itself. We need stronger and stronger stimuli, bigger and bigger doses of new stimulants. And in the end, they kill us – like the drugs that have killed a legion of stars of modern pop culture.
The biggest problem of any civilization, at some point, ceases to be the struggle with nature and hostile tribes, and it becomes the need to fight our own weaknesses, which come to us as a result of our own success. We are safe, rich; we have free time – and we don’t know what to do with all of this. This is when the self-destructive process begins. Giambattista Vico already knew that.
ZJ: Let me go back to what you said about the democratization of language, and that the success of Romanticism lies in using the language people use and emotions that they feel. As always, what at the beginning sounds like a well-intentioned idea, later can have unintended consequences. We talked about John Lennon and Queen, nihilism, and hedonism. One could still argue that they translated high-brow philosophical ideas into language that the ordinary people could understand as their own. Neither Lennon nor Queen are guilty; they just “expressed,” in the form of popular music, what philosophers said decades earlier.
Now, 50-60 years later, it is not Romanticism or Existentialism which stand behind the new trends in music. It is the naked, ugly reality of the street, to which once high-brow philosophy led society. In America it is called rap. Rap spread everywhere like a tsunami. It started as a form of expression of the feelings – or more likely resentment – of the destitute, undereducated Black segment of American population. However, because of its vulgarity and outright racism it is listened, for the most part, by Blacks, and it terrifies most of the Whites. Yet the liberal media bow to it.
One of the Founding Fathers of rap, JZ, is a musical icon, interviewed on National Public Radio and television in the US. University professors organize courses about JZ. When you listen to his public pronouncements you get the feeling that rap is not music but a form of mental imprisonment of someone who never grew up. Do you have an explanation as to what happened and why? Is rap the last phase of the Romantic rebellion led by adult children, like JZ?
AW: Paradoxically, I agree with this last sentence, at least to a certain extent. Yes, I can see that music videos of this type tend to be soft pornography and praise the lives of gangsters – obviously I’m not attracted to the stupidity of it all. There are also nobler forms of this music; but I do not follow or analyze them either. Both rap and hip-hop are artistic styles with their own rules and structure. I can imagine a masterpiece in this genre, although I cannot name it. Perhaps it is because of my own ignorance, or perhaps a rap-style masterpiece has never been created and will never be.
But since rap exists as a separate style – the existence of outstanding songs of this type is also possible and probable. In Poland, where all Anglo-American musical styles are imitated, the band Kaliber 44 enjoyed a short-lived fame some time ago, whose young soloist was considered a genius; but his life was short, because he killed himself jumping, out of a window under the influence of drugs.
This is hard to approve of in any way, but the interpretation you are proposing here also seems possible. Rap is a peculiar rhythm that is based on the intonation of individual sentences and crossed with relatively regular versification. The content of the rapper’s monologue is important; the music has a secondary role; it accompanies the recitation of the text and emphasizes its meaning. These are features that are well known from the folklore of bygone eras.
Thus, the romantic theory of nature poetry, which is born spontaneously among simple people, lacking knowledge of the conventions and rules of official art, fits it. Rap with its style and place of birth (in the dangerous neighborhoods of New York) fits well with this romantic theory.
Besides (probably) rap performers cannot be suspected of illustrating Sartre’s theses. So, maybe this is not a simplified adaptation of high culture, but a real inflow from below – the music of the roots? On the other hand, it is also not ordinary folklore, because in the process of producing recordings, the simplicity of style and the primitiveness of picture-suggestions are combined with technical and technological refinement.
ZJ: Going back to your remark about the use of ordinary language by the Romantics. Is this the beginning of the process which led to the birth of what we call “popular culture” – as opposed to High Culture? Today no one uses the distinction between High and Low/popular culture. The educational system in Western countries is structured in a way that what belonged to the Treasure of Western Culture or Kultur, is no longer taught. It is at best tolerated. The last attempt at defending High Culture was probably T.S. Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1959). Do you see where we are today as a result and the end of cultural mutation of Romanticism?
AW: I prefer to think of Romanticism and pop-culture, and, more precisely, of the specific elements of these different, certainly broad and difficult to define phenomena, not as mutations, but as cultural modalities. In similar cultural phenomena, the actualization of similar potentials, constantly inherent in human nature, takes place. Cultural updates are historical and the potentialities of nature’s people are unchanged.
ZJ: Thank you Professor Wasko for this wonderful interview.
Andrzej Waśko is professor of Polish Literature at the Jagiellonian University, Krakow. He is the author of Romantic Sarmatism, History According to Poets, Zygmunt Krasinski, Democracy Without Roots, Outside the System, and On Literary Education. The former Vice-Minister of Education, he is curretnly the editor-in-chief of the conservative bimonthly magazine Arcana and is presently Adviser to Polish President Andrzej Duda.
The image shows, “Sielanka (An Idyll),” by Józef Chełmoński, painted in 1885.
This month we are so very honored to present this interview with Monsieur Jacques Villemain, the highly regarded French jurist and diplomat. His recent and magisterial work on the war in the Vendée is the subject of this interview, which is conducted by Christophe Geffroy of La Nef.
Christophe Geffroy (CG): In 2017, you published a book entitled, Vendée 1793-1794. Crimes de guerre? Crimes contre l’humanité ? Génocide ? Une étude juridique (The Vendée 1793-1794. War Crime? Crimes Against Humanity? Genocide? A Legal Study), in which you seek to demonstrate that these three types of crimes were indeed committed in the Vendée by the troops of the Convention. Why write a new book on this subject today? What is particularly important about this question?
Jacques Villemain (JV): After establishing the legal qualification of the crime, it must be explained. How could a French revolution that began in 1789 on the pretext of proclaiming the rights of man and of the citizen, in just four years managed to commit, and in the very name of these ideals, these mass crimes? This is the first part.
But the main part of the book is devoted to the reasons which prevent us in France to look this past in the face – when Reynald Secher published his thesis on “the Franco-French genocide” in 1986, it created a beautiful scandal! This is because the University, at least the university sector dedicated to the history of the French Revolution, has been from the beginning (1891) organized solely for the celebration of the Revolution. Originally it was about producing a doxa legitimizing the republican regime, which was at that still contested in France.
The revolution was a “bloc” to use Clemenceau’s famous phrase, there was no question of admitting that there could be abuses and crimes. The Vendeans were criminals, traitors, debris of a bygone past, and the Terror was absolved in the name of “circumstances.” We are not there anymore. The very half-hearted celebration of the Bicentenary in 1989 clearly showed that there had been several phases in the Revolution, and that we could hardly celebrate the period 1789-1792 (and especially not all of 1792), that is, in effect, the “liberal” period, that of the affirmation of human rights. These rights were the great victim of the period that followed, and in the massacres of September (1792) to at least until 9 Thermidor (1794). The Vendée genocide falls within this interval.
Now that the Republic is no longer contested in France, we can make distinctions and exercise our right to inventory the revolutionary period, which includes the “good,” the “less good,” and the “totally criminal.” This the radical Left does not admit, and it is entrenched in the University, that high place which Marcel Gauchet termed as “cultural leftism,” and which is a bunker all the more comfortable since it has no hold on reality (apart from training history and geography teachers – disaster subject matters in a National Education which is itself not in great shape).
University historians, who specialize in the revolutionary period, and who are mostly radical left activists, can thus say just about anything, none of it having the slightest practical importance. A number of their outright Communist works (say from 1920-1989) cannot be read without a smile today, and their current fallacies are no less ridiculous.
I try to continue what Reynald Secher showed earlier, but by as a legal demonstration, to show that one can acknowledge this genocide without calling for “repentance,” without “pulling down the statues,” and without hatred and contempt for our national history.
CG: You insist on the legal character of the concept of genocide, thereby distinguishing yourself from a historical or social analysis. How important is the legal character of the concept of genocide in such an investigation?
JV: First of all, the notion of genocide is an exclusively legal concept. It was conceived for the sole purpose of the penal repression of a crime which, until the Shoah, had no name, but whose concept was recognized by international custom – this “human right” was expressly invoked as a basis by the UN Convention of 1948 which defines it.
Historians and social scientists, committed to denying the genocide thesis, ignore it cleverly if not willfully. Some forge their own concept of genocide in order to then be able to demonstrate that it excludes the Vendée case – their demonstration is in their basic assumptions. We even see aberrations by historians claiming that “extermination” in the eighteenth century does not mean “killing everyone” as today, which is of course denied as much by the dictionary of the French Academy (1762 edition) as by the use made of the word, for example in Racine or La Fontaine – so already a century before the facts.
I devote an entire chapter to dismantling the fallacies of historians denying the Vendée genocide, more than one of which oscillates in practice between obvious bad faith and being completely ridiculous. Thus, for example, François Furet, could only have a career outside the University which, in the field of studies pertaining to the revolutionary period, we can point out, is completely “hogged” by the Robespierrists. The “Social Sciences,” as you say, have become a combat sport of the radical left where they engage in powerful relay races.
Today, for example, it is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who calls himself Robespierriste, and it is the LFI (the left wing political party La France insoumise, Unbowed France) which is trying to have a “Rue Robespierre” created in Paris (for the moment there is only one metro station called, “Robespierre” in the commune of Montreuil, historically communist, which gave it this name in the euphoria of the Popular Front in 1936).
Robespierre remains a symbol of social revolution and of the legitimization of violence in politics – to say that he was involved in the commission of genocide is obviously blasphemy for a whole politico-university fringe which supports the “Right to blaspheme” but only on the condition rthat said right spares his convictions.
CG: So, there is a precise and universally recognized definition of genocide, to clarify the debate?
JV: Yes. It is stated in the UN Convention “On the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” (1948), as interpreted in the 1990s by the case law of the courts established by the same UN to judge genocides in ex -Yugoslavia (Srebrenica), in Rwanda; then with its assistance in Cambodia (genocides of the Khmer Rouge); and finally by the International Criminal Court.
This is the basis of my analysis. Because if the notion of “genocide” is from the 20th century, the reality of the fact (systematically massacring a whole “stable and permanent human group” by targeting it “as such”) was well recognized as criminal in the 18th century. Such a thing was condemned without having the word “genocide” to designate it. But it was precisely at this time that its equivalents appeared, used by committed revolutionaries, and in no way favorable to the Vendéens. It was Joseph Lequinio who, 1794, spoke of “depopulation” (because the word “depopulation” could evoke an involuntary phenomenon). And, in 1797, Gracchus Babeuf, who is often taken for one of the first Communists, forged the adjective “populicide” which has exactly the same etymology as “genocide.”
What the evolution of law and especially of the jurisprudence of the twentieth century brings us is the way of analyzing criminal intent in the context of mass crimes. In these cases, we cannot reason as in the matter of individual criminality, because in mass crimes it is not an individual who kills another, but a collective of criminals who attack a collective of victims – the first do not know the latter and vice versa. Hitler or Himmler certainly could not have been individually linked to any of the 6 million Jews they killed, and yet they are very well responsible for these crimes.
How to establish mass crime? This is the subject that the Nuremberg Tribunal focused on, followed by the international criminal tribunals created by the UN to try mass crimes (crimes against humanity and genocide) committed in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, then the courts set up in Cambodia with the support of the UN to try the crimes of the Khmer Rouge.
It is this experience, I was going to say this criminological know-how which, as such, is not attached to a particular period, that I use to reason about the atrocities committed in the Vendée – and which I demonstrate were indeed genocide.
CG: What is the difference between genocide and crimes against humanity?
JV: It was especially during the Nuremberg Trials that we became aware of the difference. Admittedly the Nazis had exterminated en masse Russians, Poles and Ukrainians, but that was to free up a “living space” for the future Reich and one would then have preserved these populations to reduce them to bondage for the Reich’s profit. There was no general extermination plan or principle against these people, even though there were undeniable mass killings. On the contrary, the Jews were targeted in general and absolute terms and “as such,” their very existence being intolerable; and in principle not a single one should have survived, if the Nazis had achieved their ends.
The difference between the two exterminations was a difference in nature and not just in degree. This is why no sooner had the Nuremberg Tribunal closed its doors than the UN launched the work of drafting what would become the 1948 convention which made “genocide” a crime distinct from other “crimes against” humanity, because it is not the same criminal intent.
A crime against humanity involves the general context of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population, but not necessarily with the aim of exterminating it entirely “as such.” For example, there is no doubt today that the reduction to slavery of human groups constitutes a crime against humanity; but by hypothesis, when we want to reduce people to slavery, we do not want to kill them since then we could no longer make them work – qualifying the slave trade as genocide on the grounds that it caused a very large number of deaths is not supported.
The generalized massacre of American Indians is not a genocide either – besides the fact that the causes are much more involuntary (spread of European diseases such as smallpox to which these populations had no immunity) than premeditated, the goal was not to exterminate them but to steal most of their land (and for the rest they would be confined to “reserves”). We are quite clearly within “crime against humanity” but not within “genocide.”
On the contrary, when it comes to the Jews, the Nazis wanted them to disappear from the face of the earth as some kind of pollution of the human species.
The Convention also thought that the very existence of the Vendeans was incompatible with that of the France they wanted to build; and we find, for example, revolutionary authorities who speak of the “crime of their existence” – the crime of the Vendeans was to exist. The consequence is extermination, as complete as possible – genocide.
CG: The texts of the Convention, of the Representatives on mission, of the Committee of Public Safety as well as of the generals that you quote are often chilling with cynicism in their will to exterminate. How do you explain that the will for such a crime was possible and shared by so many?
JV: I think one could say, cynicism and/or blindness. The Vendée uprising asked revolutionaries this unbearable question: how can a notable part of the people rise up against them? They claimed that they were acting in the name of the people and for their happiness! Yet August 10, 1792 was only the coup d’état of a small minority and the Convention was elected in a climate of terror (90% abstentions). The Vendée uprising sent this government back to its imposture, which it neither wanted nor could recognize or understand.
Bertrand Barère, of the Committee of Public Safety, spoke of “the inexplicable Vendée” before the Convention. The revolutionary still had an explanation in which he either believed (blindly), or which he held on to because it was convenient (cynicism) – that the Vendeans had been brutalized, degenerated by centuries of clerical and nobiliary domination. “It is out of the principle of humanity that I purge the earth of these monsters,” Jean-Baptiste Carrier said in Nantes. Here by “humanity” is meant “progress” and “monsters” literally designates “abnormal.” There is no other choice but to eradicate this sub-humanity for the happiness of true Humanity, that of the future.
The Convention members spoke of the Vendeans as the Nazis came to speak of the Jews – “the accursed race,” “the execrable race,” “to be exterminated to the last,” etc. are all recurring terms in their rhetoric. The genocidal logic is also, and perhaps first, there. This will is then relayed by a flawless “chain of command:” this concept and that of a “joint criminal enterprise,” which is the culmination of the experience of the Nuremberg Tribunal on “Criminal Organizations” (like the SS, for example), are essential to the demonstration that there was indeed genocide.
It should be understood that the genocidal will did not form overnight. François Furet spoke about the policy of the Convention in the Vendée of an “election of hatred” – it is a gradual process. At the beginning (March 1793) the Parisian revolutionaries believed in a simple jacquerie: they had the required troops and decided to put all the insurgents to death, even if they had not taken arms.
It was an avalanche of war crimes. And yet the revolt not only was not put down, but it extended to the point of siege before Nantes. From then on, the Convention grew fearful and with two laws, of August 1 and October 1, ordered a policy of scorched earth in the Vendée (it is “Destroy the Vendée” repeated six times in the speech by Barère to get the vote for the first of these laws), which characterized a “generalized or systematic attack against a civilian population,” and therefore a policy of crimes against humanity.
And yet the Vendée continued to fight. When it was finally defeated in December 1793 at Savenay, and henceforth there was no more Vendée military force, except perhaps François de Charette who moreover only had a few hundred men in the region of de Retz – one might have expected the Convention members to seek pacification.
But this is precisely the moment when they decided to unleash the “infernal columns” on the Vendée, whose mission was to comb the country by burning everything and killing all those they met, including, where applicable, the Republican Vendéens (because there were still a few in the “Catholic and Royal” country). The Vendée must become a “national cemetery” (said General Turreau), a kind of blank page on which we can finally build the new society. As is obvious, genocidal logic crowns the spiral of violence, a criminal intent that had been built up gradually, but also that had hardened until it could be implemented.
CG: Why do you qualify the Vendée war as a “religious one?”
JV: In 1789, the “Vendéans,” had rather welcomed the Revolution. But both their religious culture and their social life were structured around Catholicism. Living in small parishes, isolated in their bocage around their “good priests,” who came from their own ranks and so were close to the people. These priests now saw their world crumble when they began to be hunted down for refusing the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in order to remain faithful to Rome.
When, in addition, the priests were required to go and fight at the borders to defend this new order that fell upon them (in March 1793), there was an explosion. Opposing them was the “Republic,” which took on the value of a true “political religion” or “secular religion” – Jules Michelet did not invent anything when he spoke of the Revolution as a new “Church” and a new “Gospel.” Mona Ozouf describes the search by the revolutionaries for a “transfer of sacredness” to found the new regime on a new legitimacy, like that of the king which was based on the coronation at Reims. But this required a “transfer of faith.”
The core of this war was religious – but religious on both sides. What really put an end to the war in the Vendée was the Concordat of 1801 (agreement reached between Bonaparte and the papal representative during the Consulate). Because the war continued at low intensity after Thermidor and the first attempts at pacification in 1795 (treaties of La Jaunaye, La Mabilais and Saint-Florent) – these agreements were never respected on either side, because Parisian authorities could not agree to restore the freedom of worship, which was the real reason for the Vendée uprising.
In 1797, there was even an upsurge in the policy of de-Christianization (it was under the Directory that most religious buildings would be destroyed, for example, such as the famous Cluny abbey). This is made clear in the report made to the Council of State by Joseph-Jérôme Simeon for the ratification of the text negotiated between Bonaparte and Pius VII – it is religious persecution which is at the origin of the revolt; and if freedom of public worship had been restored to the Vendéens earlier, we would have had peace sooner, or even no war at all.
After all, even the execution of the king in January 1793 had not caused an uprising. And after the Concordat there would be no more Vendée uprising. The Duchess of Berry in 1832 did not succeed in stirring up the region against Louis-Philippe. As in 1815, only a few nobles, for whom the monarchist cause counted as much or more than the Catholic cause, rose up. But the peasants did not follow – they had obtained the return of their “good priests,” and that was enough for them.
One question remains: why was there only one Vendée? In fact, there were many uprisings against the revolutionary Parisian dictatorship, since there were up to 60 departments in insurrection out of the 83 in France at the time. Either Vendée Catholicism was particularly internalized and “militant,” or it was particularly structured for the population which lived in what became the “Military Vendée,” or its initial successes allowed the uprising to become wide-spread and durable (and all these causes can be cumulative). But it is a fact that only the Vendée uprising was qualified, and this from the beginning, as a “war” by the Parisian revolutionaries themselves.
CG: What are the main obstacles to the recognition of the Vendéan genocide?
JV: It is the revolutionary faith that is in question, this idea that violence “brings about history” (Marx) and is the necessary and thus legitimate means of political and social progress. The revolutionary studies at the French University were organized under the Third Republic, first to celebrate the Revolution as the founding myth of the Republic. We then convinced ourselves that 1917 would be the new 1793, or the continuation of the movement of social revolution previously launched by the sans-culottes, but without Thermidor this time.
The marching wing of the Left, now Communist, then took over the management of this university sector – since 1937 all the holders of the chair of the history of the French Revolution at the Sorbonne, which sets the tone on this subject, have been members of the Société des Etudes Robespierristes, and almost always inset Communists or “fellow-travelers.” They have powerful political links. Today it is Jean-Luc Mélenchon especially, who calls himself Robespierriste, but even in yesteryears a François Mitterrand or a Lionel Jospin did not want to nurture an image of “the Left” that the economic policy they were pursuing was chipping away at was enough to dissociate themselves from it. This is still very true today.
Even if no historian can continue to claim like Clemenceau in the last century that “The Revolution is a bloc,” it nevertheless remains the doxa of the radical Left for whom the faith and especially the revolutionary hope remains intact, and which cannot therefore endure the questioning of this revolutionary tale which François Furet qualified as “vulgate Lenino-populist” and which takes the place of Holy History. It is a very small minority, but it is focused and activist, and propped up on strong institutional positions.
Today, the Republic is no longer a contested regime in France; we can afford to take stock of the good, the bad and the unacceptable in the legacy of the period of 1789-1799. Moreover, what we call the “Republic” today has nothing to do, institutionally or otherwise, with the terrorist regime of 1792-1794. It is interesting to note that President Macron celebrated the Republic in the Pantheon, taking as a reference the Republic’s proclamation on September 4, 1870. It is indeed the birth of the parliamentary and democratic republic which is the one in which we live today.
It is no less interesting to note that it was a Jean-Luc Mélenchon who responded to Macron by saying that the real date to remember is September 21, 1792, that is to say, precisely the foundation of the terrorist republic which would bloody France until Thermidor and make the very name of “Republic” odious in France until 1870.
During most of the 19th century France tried to find a form of constitutional monarchy. We tried with the Bourbons in 1815, with the Orléans in 1830, with the Bonapartes in 1852, and even a return to the Bourbons/Orléans in 1871-75, which would fail because of the irreconcilable divisions among the different monarchist groups. The different families who reigned over France having shown themselves incapable or having refused to make room for the representative regime, the Republic is in a way “by default;” and finally what is today its most stable form is another form of “republican monarchy.”
We no longer need the revolutionary myth to found the Republic. On the contrary, this idea that it is from violence that political and social progress comes appears to us today for what it is – a dangerous chimera. Disorder is not the climate in which justice progresses. On the contrary, it is the climate in which all injustices and all crimes become possible, if not inevitable.
CG: Why does official recognition of this genocide seem important to you today? What would be the point?
JV: It is a past that does not pass away. The Vendée has not forgotten. Otherwise, Philippe de Villiers would not have been able to found his “Puy-du-Fou” with so many volunteers, and continue it until today on the same basis, that is to say for more than 40 years.
We must also consider that the Vendée genocide is the high point of a trauma that has permanently rotted relations between the Church and the Republic. They were not necessarily meant to be confused with hostility, however. The republican form of the regime did not, even at the time, pose any problem to the Church, where it was not accompanied by antichristianism (the case of the United States); and it was even clearly preferred by the Church in some cases (Ireland, Poland).
Because of this initial trauma that even today we have not really succeeded in appeasing by a process of truth, we have invented a concept of “secularism,” anti-religious in fact, if not in principle, and which only exists in us to the point that this term is untranslatable in other languages. Recognizing the origin of the problem is essential, if we want to overcome it. The recognition of the Vendée genocide, which is in no way attributable to “the Republic,” but to a terrorist group which seized power under this name in 1793-94, just as another terrorist group will seize power in Russia in 1917 to remain there by violence for 70 years – only this recognition can allow us to strengthen our national unity and consider more serenely the moral and intellectual future, even spiritual, of our country.
The more violent a revolution, the more it delays the advent of a peaceful and democratic society. In England, the revolution of 1649 was followed by ten years of civil war at the end of which a successful Restoration allowed the country to regain its base, even with the crisis of 1688.
In France, where the Restorations (Bourbons, Orléans, Bonaparte) did not succeed in taking root, it took almost a century to begin to digest the period of 1789-1799 – we did not begin to enter into truly democratic mores until around 1880; and political liberalism took even longer to come about.
In Russia, the violence of the Revolution in 1917 was such that even more than 30 years after the collapse of Sovietism, it is clear that liberal democracy is not yet relevant there even if a whole segments of Russian society aspire to it. You do not make flowers grow by pulling on them or, as Talleyrand already said, “Time does not respect anything that we try to do without.”
The Revolution is not a means of progress – sometimes necessary, or rather inevitable, to bring down an unjust system, or one that has become incapable of ensuring the common good, it can destroy – but it does not build anything. It is time that we realized, that we admit in France, that the democracy in which we live owes nothing, except perhaps symbolically and nothing more, to 1789-1799, which was overall a formidable regression of civilization, right up to genocide.
The liberal ideas of 1789 would have finally prevailed anyway, in the great movement of political reform which manifested itself everywhere in Europe from the 17th century onwards. These ideas could certainly have won out much more gradually, as was done in the United Kingdom, which descends gently from the “limited monarchy” of 1689 to the aristocratic regime of the 18th century and its progressive democratization in the mid-19th century. And that would have been preferable: England has undergone a much more reasonable development, and democratic mores have taken root much more deeply there than in France, where even still in 1940 the Republic aroused enough hatred and opposition as historical trauma that it was overthrown in favor of a regime which renounced even its name.
It is therefore not the Republic that is at issue here, but the myth of political violence as a means of progress that must be deconstructed. Realizing that the Human Rights Revolution was able to degenerate into genocide should undoubtedly make us collectively more reasonable about what we can expect from violence in politics and about the tragedy of an ideological regime that claims to bring about a “new world” and a “new man.”
I see no better conclusion on this subject than to quote the speech Solzhenitsyn made on September 25, 1993 at the Historial of Vendée, built on the initiative of the Vendée departmental council, then chaired by Philippe de Villiers:
“It was the 20th century that considerably tarnished, in the eyes of mankind, the romantic halo that surrounded the revolution in the 18th century. Men have at last come to know, based on their own misfortunes, that revolutions destroy the organic character of society; that they ruin the natural course of life; that they annihilate the best elements of the population, giving free rein to the worst; that no revolution can enrich a country, just a few unscrupulous hustlers; that in its own country, generally, it is the cause of countless deaths, widespread impoverishment and, in the most serious, lasting degradation of the population.”
This month, we are greatly honored to present this interview with Professor Andrzej Nowak, a Polish historian and a public intellectual. He is a professor at the Institute of History, Jagiellonian University, Krakow, and is the head of the Comparative Imperial Studies Section at the Polish Academy of Sciences.
Professor Nowak has lectured as a visiting professor at Columbia University, Harvard University, Rice University, the University of Virginia, University of Cambridge, and University College, London. He is also a recipient of the Order of the White Eagle – Poland’s highest order.
He is the author of over 30 books, among them a multivolume history of Poland, Między nieładem a niewolą. Krótka historia myśli politycznej (Between Disorder and Captivity. A Short History of Political Ideas), Metamorfozy Imperium Rosyjskiego: 1721-1921 (Metamorphoses of Russian Empire), and History and Geopolitics: A Contest for Eastern Europe, Russia and Eastern Europe.
He is interviewed by Dr. Zbigniew Janowski, on behalf of the Postil.
Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): Thirty years ago, when we met, you were a scholar of Russia. You had published several books on the topic. They drew the attention of Andrzej Walicki and Richard Pipes, two well-known experts on Russian history. Now you are writing about the history of Poland. Thus far you have written four out of ten intended volumes. Could you briefly describe your intellectual trajectory? What made you leave Russian history?
Andrzej Nowak (AN): Indeed, my research interests began with an analysis of the concept of the multiplicity of civilizations by Nikolay Danilevsky, a contemporary of Dostoevsky, an ideologue of Russian Pan-Slavism. That was forty years ago.
In recent years, however, I have returned to the history of Russian imperial thought. In 2018, I published an extensive volume of studies on the manifestations of this thought in Russian culture, from the time of Peter the Great to the formation of the group of so-called Eurasianists during the First World War. I am still interested in Russian topics. Not only because it is fascinating in itself, but also because of its numerous connections with the history of Poland to the present day. For Russia, over the centuries, Poland has been the first obstacle on the way to Europe, leading to its subordination.
Marx expressed it succinctly in 1863, when he wrote that “the rebuilding of Poland meant the annihilation of (imperial) Russia, the cancellation of the Russian candidate for world rule” (“Wiederherstellung Polens ist die Vernichtung Rußlands, (die) Rußlands Absetzung von seiner Kandidatur zur Weltherrschaft”). The issue of neighboring Russia and its geopolitical significance has been my concern for a long time; and it is precisely the historical Russian-Polish relations and the comparison of two political cultures that have developed so differently in the two countries.
When it comes to the multi-volume history of Poland, for me it is an attempt to reread the specificity of Polish political culture, its rootedness in the European republican tradition (this issue has been discovered in recent years by such outstanding scholars as Quentin Skinner and Martin van Gelderen).
But has anyone pointed out that the term “Polish citizen” – civis Polonis – appears for the first time in a document from the mid-12th century? I found out about it while writing the first volume of my synthesis. Now that I am on volume five, which covers the 17th century, I wonder about the crisis of the republican system, as well as the geopolitical conditions of its duration (wars with Russia, Protestant Sweden, and Islamic Turkey).
Such issues give me a lot of intellectual pleasure – and also because they allow me to look at the present day, for example, of the European Union, from the point of view of the longest lasting union in the history of Europe: the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1385-1795). Why did this union end up being partitioned by its imperial neighbors? How did they use the mechanisms of republican freedom (veto, applied in the Polish parliamentary system until 1791)? These are not just historical issues. In each case, like a shadow, being a neighbor to Russia brings back the problem of the empire.
ZJ: Russia is fascinating. One reason is Russian literature: Pushkin, Lermontov, Chekov, Gogol, Pasternak, Bulgakov, and, above all, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. No nation, I dare say, can claim to have so many outstanding writers. Yet Dostoevsky stands out among them. He is not just a great writer but a great thinker; one of the most insightful critics of Modernity.
If you want to understand the cultural malaise of the West in the 20th century, you turn to Nietzsche, Ortega y Gasset and Dostoevsky. “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” lays out all the fundamental problems of political and social organization. It is a real tour de force of political theory, which, matches only Plato’s considerations in The Republic. Chapters 7 and 8 of Notes from Underground, on the other hand, is an unsurpassed analysis of the dangers of the nascent scientific mentality, the danger of which was described in the 1950s by Jacques Ellul in his The Technological Society. Aldous Huxley, on the other hand, turned Notes into his Brave New World (1932) – which describes a soft totalitarianism, the world which we seem to be building.
On the one hand, Dostoevsky is a great prophet, who saw the future of the West, a future where the scientific mentality dominated everything and discredited the Past (tradition, religion, hierarchy, custom, history); and, on the other hand, Dostoevsky is the Russian sui generis. He is suspicious of the West, Western ideas, Western Christianity, and, let me add, who passionately dislikes the Poles for Poland’s Western orientation and Catholicism.
Czeslaw Milosz saw Dostoevsky as someone from a backward country, who realized the danger that Western ideas posed, which were flooding Russia at the beginning of the 19th century. Dostoevsky’s literary output is a short history of modern Europe. Do you agree with Milosz? And what is your attitude toward Dostoevsky?
AN: The term “backward country” of course implies that there are “progressive” countries which are the yardstick for the rest of the world. Such an attitude was adopted by Dostoevsky himself, fascinated by the ideas of Saint-Simon and Fourier, which he got to know in the circle of the young intelligentsia in St. Petersburg. The death sentence he was given for participating in this circle, and then exile, certainly came as a shock.
When, after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War, the so-called “progressive countries” – Great Britain, France and Sardinia, saw a liberal “thaw” in domestic politics, so that Dostoevsky was no longer enthusiastic about following “progress.” He quickly saw that liberalism and the so-called the utopian socialism, which fascinated him earlier, had a common source. And it is a poisoned source – the belief that man can build a paradise on earth on his own, and that the West is close to this paradise; and countries such as Russia should intensely imitate the West, so that one day they may find themselves at least in the vestibule of this paradise.
Imitation of the West will end in the revolution of nihilism, the foretelling of which Dostoevsky already noticed in Russia. He described them in the form of two generations in Demons: the older generation – “rotten” liberals and the younger generation – radical revolutionists.
The same observations were made earlier by poets of the Polish Romantic emigration: Adam Mickiewicz and Zygmunt Krasiński. The latter, in the drama “the Undivine Comedy” of 1833, presented exactly the vision of total revolution as a rebellion against God, as Dostoevsky had done 40 years later. The difference is that for Krasiński, the criticism of the revolution and of the preceding evolution of Western civilization is an “internal” criticism – he mourns this crisis because it is his civilization. He would like to save it, like Joseph de Maistre; he would like the Polish nobility to support the collapsing dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome with their sabers.
Polish Romantic thinkers imagined that Poland could play the role of the last defender of the European classical and Christian moral tradition against the forces of decay.
On the other hand, Dostoevsky, along with a large part of the Russian intellectual elite, took a different perspective: the crisis arises from the very essence of the West, from the rebellion of the West (that is, Catholicism) against the only true faith that has been preserved by the Orthodox Church. This is the perspective of the criticism of the West that continues in Russian thought right up to Solzhenitsyn and contemporary ideologues of Putin’s era. There are also great Russian writers who refer to this tradition today, especially Zachar Prilepin, a contemporary Dostoevsky.
ZJ: However, one can raise the following argument: Poland, as a country, disappeared from the map of Europe in 1795. Polish nobility turned Poland into “a country for sale,” because they invented a political system that made the Polish state (and the regal power) weak. Its downfall was predicted by King Sobieski.
The idea that the Polish nobles can “support the collapsing dome” is – pardon me – a piece of rhetoric, which inscribes itself well within the context of the post-French Revolution world, but it misses the point. How could de Maistre think that one could entrust the fate of Christianity, Catholicism to the people who could not even manage the political affairs of their own country? If one looks for defense of Catholicism or Christianity, a better place than de Maistre, in my opinion, is Chateaubriand’s The Genius of Christianityand Constant essays on religion.
AN: Sorry for the misunderstanding. The vision of the Polish nobility supporting the collapsing dome of St. Peter was written by Zygmunt Krasiński, a Polish Romantic conservative. Yes, he was inspired by de Maistre’s political philosophy, but this was a vision of Krasiński, not of a Savoyard reactionary.
De Maistre saw, for a time, in tsarist Russia the hope of saving the European tradition, until he realized how much revolutionary fuel was in Russia itself. Krasiński’s vision assumed that the Polish nobility most consistently represented the traditions of Roman republicanism, combined with Latin Christianity. As a conservative, however, he considered original sin as the cause of the contamination of all worldly endeavors and projects. That is why he saw in the attitude of defending the traditions of European Christianity a heroic but futile act. Poland’s act is to defend a struggling Christian Europe desperately to the end, just as it fought desperately for the independence of the lost (also through its own fault) Poland. But she will win this fight alone. Only Providence can win this fight. We have a duty to fight; we have no guarantee of victory.
It seems to me that this attitude is absent both in Chateaubriand and in Constant. Their “bland,” more melancholic and cultural view of Christianity presents it as a beautiful adventure of the European past, which may be saved as a kind of museum monument in the modern world. Krasiński, on the other hand, sees the issue of Catholic Europe as a fundamental existential, dramatic choice – against “this world” created by the triumph of liberalism and capitalism.
This is a completely different kind of romanticism than the ethos found in Chateaubriand. I think more realistic – at least from today’s perspective. This does not mean, however, that I believe that “Polish nobility” or Poland simply had some unique opportunities to save tradition.
Poland itself is part of the European community of fate. People who consider themselves in some sense heirs of Krasiński, but also of John Paul II and Saint Faustina (a Polish nun who initiated the world cult of God’s Mercy), must look for those Germans who feel spiritual communion with Pope Ratzinger, those Italians who understand one’s identity in the spirit of the Catholic tradition; Spaniards who still know who Miguel de Unamuno was; the French who understand the choice of Pascal and Antoine de Saint-Exupery; The English who have in their spiritual heritage Thomas More, Cardinal John Henry Newman, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Chesterton. We are all in one boat and we will drown together, or we will keep on going together. We will reach the shore as Providence decides. We have a duty to row, in spite of those who want to sink our boat now.
ZJ: But the fate of a nation, unless we understand it in Oedipian sense, is not sealed. Fate of countries lies either in having a strong culture which gives a people a specific national identity – different from others – or strong political institutions capable of sustaining that culture.
Poland is a unique example. After more than eight centuries, it disappeared from the map of Europe at the very end of 18th century. What happened was more a result of the malfunctioning of political institutions than a lack of national identity, which, let us recall, was forged in the historical process since 966 AD, when Poland became a Christian country. Poland had elected kings and a republican system of government, which led to political weakness.
If you look at the American debate (the so-called The Federalist Papers) how such a new political system should work, the Founding Fathers (Madison and Hamilton) thought of the legislative process as an attempt to reconcile the conflicting interests that take place in a society at large. Representatives of the states are supposed to represent the general attitude of the people they represent; they do not have a mandate to act or vote in a predetermined way. They are not delegates!
The Polish republican experiment was exactly the opposite. It was based on, first, the unanimity principle and, second, the “imperative mandate.” What the result of it was that the Polish Diet was prevented from being a deliberative assembly, like the English House of Commons around the same period.
Such a system left virtually no room for strong central government – the elected king – to govern effectively. The king was stripped of the power to govern, whereas the nobility could claim to enjoy “Golden Liberty.” But this liberty could be had only at the expense of the weak State and submission of the vast part of the population.
The American Founding Fathers, on the other hand, worked on the assumption that the people are free to participate, and the role of the government is to mitigate the conflicts. To prevent anarchy, or impotence of the government, the State – the federal government – had to have considerable power. Polish liberum veto, which made it possible for one person to veto the majority decision, was the opposite of the majority principle.
Can you very briefly explain how such a system came about? Were there any serious political thinkers – like Grotius, Hobbes, Locke – behind it? Or was it something that was spontaneously generated during the historical process?
AN: The system was modeled on a Roman one that lasted only a little longer. And it was not Grotius, Hobbes, or Locke who supported the creation of this system, but much more “serious thinkers” – Aristotle and Cicero first of all.
The founders of Polish republicanism modeled themselves on their works above all. They believed, somewhat anachronistically, that in the sixteenth or seventeenth century their republicanism could exist between Moscow – the “third Rome”- the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Empire and the Protestant military monarchy of the Swedes, the Commonwealth, i.e. the republic – as in Cicero or Aristotle (monarchia mixta), with the Polish nobility as equals, the Seym (the parliament) as a concilium plebis, the senate as the senate, and the king as an elected consul or princeps.
This is how Jan Zamoyski, influential co-founder of this system, imagined an extremely influential co-founder of this system. Zamoyski authored the Latin treatise on the Roman Senate, and was at the same time chancellor and hetman of the Republic of Poland at the end of the 16th century. He was the author of the concept of the free election of a king, in which every noble had an equal voting right. Thus, theoretically, it had the right to vote, active and passive(!), with several hundred thousand citizens of the Republic of Poland (in practice, the election of the king came from 10 to 40 thousand).
The right of veto was to secure the union with Lithuania. Lithuania was smaller than the Polish part of the union; it could always vote in the Sejm. Thanks to the right of veto, the Lithuanians could feel safer as a political minority. For the first time, a single veto, i.e., the vote of one deputy, broke the deliberations of the Seym only in 1652, that is, after a very long earlier period of efficient functioning of the Seym. The election instruction of the sejmik (imperative mandate), which elected a deputy to the Seym, was to guarantee the voting power of the local government.
There is no place here to analyze this system in detail, which was much more complex and effective (for at least 200 years) than the caricatures that Bodin or Montesquieu created on the basis of their ignorance and arrogance, or the ideological enemies of republican freedom, such as, Hobbes or Locke.
ZJ: I want to return to Russia, and explore a bit more the Dostoevsky question. As we said, he was Russian, Orthodox Christian, skeptical of science, which he thought was dangerous for man’s understanding of himself as a man endowed with free will, and thus responsible for his actions. As Dostoevsky observes in Notes, the belief that man’s behavior can be “tabulated and calculated” spells out the end of mankind.
Dostoyevsky understood that scientific thinking was bound to see man as a machine, whose life will be organized by the scientific state. This is the premise of Huxley’s “brave new world,” and, let me stress it, our world. We are daily bombarded by phrases such as “A new study shows…” “New research demonstrates…” Such phrases take away from us the power of making decisions about our individual lives.
Would you agree that for historical reasons, which brought Russia closer to Europe, early 19th century Russia became a focal point of Western civilization, where the problems of the modern West shone with much brighter intensity than in Western Europe. Nowhere – not in London, Paris, Berlin or even Warsaw – writers or philosophers reacted so intensely, as did Dostoevsky, at the thought of where the West was heading.
AN: But all that fascination with Russia, the “depth” of the Russian soul, which 20th century Western European writers discovered in Dostoevsky, can also be found in the great literature of Romantic Europe: in Adam Mickiewicz, Zygmunt Krasiński, but also in Shelley, Keats, and even earlier at Byron. The terrifying pattern of a “brave new world” can be found in the practical idea of the English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham.
To illustrate the relationship between the vision of horror, which Western thought was able to perfectly design, and the implementation of this vision, which was possible (for some time) only outside the West, e.g., in the authoritarian system of Russia, let me recall the history of the Panopticon. Jeremy Bentham had a brother, Samuel. Together they created a project of perfect supervision of imperfect humanity. They named it the Panopticon. They created it in Krzyczew (today on the eastern border of Belarus), which was occupied by Catherine II during the first partition of Poland.
Samuel Bentham found employment, like many world reform enthusiasts, in imperial Russia. Krzyczew and several thousand surrounding square versts taken from Lithuanian owners was given by the empress to her favorite Prince Grigory Potemkin. It was for him that the English engineer invented a new factory in the fall of 1786: a building with such a system of corridors and mirrors to be able to observe all its employees from one place. It was not about disciplining simple peasants in the area, but about supervising overseers brought in from England. To have control over every movement of those who are to act as “intelligence,” “professionals,” “elite.” This is the starting idea of the Panopticon.
Jeremy Bentham, who visited his brother in Krzyczew in 1787, was fascinated. He took up his idea and turned it into a project of an ideal prison, under the same name. He was ready to develop other applications of the same idea – apart from prisons and factories, also for hospitals and schools. See and supervise everyone without interruption. The prison inspector, playing this role, could, according to a utilitarian concept, combine business with pleasure: invite guests to his gallery, from which one could admire what the supervised do at any one time. Big Brother watches, controls and provides entertainment.
A union of perfect supervision, with the ideal of social transparency was to make life happy and safe (I recommend the movie The Circle from 2017, which shows perfectly how it works – and therefore destroyed by “right” criticism). Minimum pain, maximum pleasure. In England, the idea of the Bentham brothers was not realized – at least during their lifetime. In Russia, the younger brother did not manage to bring complete the factory: Potemkin sold Krzyczew in 1787 and set out to prepare the way for Catherine II’s triumphal journey from St. Petersburg to the Black Sea.
Samuel Bentham busied himself with the construction of Potemkin villages along the route. He returned to the idea of the Panopticon in 1806, when commissioned by Tsar Alexander I, he built such a school in St. Petersburg. A perfect prison according to the model of the Bentham brothers, including the US and Cuba, was only constructed with the use of electronic surveillance bracelets in Amsterdam, the capital of post-modern utility and pleasure (drugs plus euthanasia), in 2006.
ZJ: Dostoevsky’s suspicion of the West appears to be a distinguishing feature of the Russian mentality. But suspicion can translate itself into a political posture that one country assumes vis-à-vis other countries or civilizations. Suspicion can also produce a mentality which has a sense of its own of mission. Russia, like America, believes that it has a historical mission. Marquis de Custine, a French aristocrat who visited Russia, even prophesized that that the fate of the 20th century would be decided by Russia and America.
Let me quote here the 15th century letter by Philotheus of Pskov, which he wrote to the Grand Duke Basil III of Moscow: “The Church of Old Rome fell because of its heresy; the gates of the Second Rome, Constantinople, have been hewn down by the axes of the infidel Turks; but the Church of Moscow, the Church of the New Rome, shines brighter than the Sun in the whole Universe… Two Romes have fallen, but the Third stands fast; a fourth there cannot be.”
If you take the message of the letter to be an expression of a mind-set, there is Putin’s rule today, in that he sees nothing wrong with 74 years of Communist rule in Russia; he pours tears over the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest disaster of the 20th century. Russia’s aggressive posturing under Putin appears to be more than lack of civility, or even cynicism of a former KGB agent. Russia in Putin’s mind continues to be a country with a historical mission.
Arnold Toynbee, who used this letter in a chapter on Russia in his Civilization on Trial (1948), wrote: “In thus assuming the Byzantine heritage deliberately and self-consciously, the Russians were taking over, among other things, the traditional Byzantine attitude towards the West; and this has had a profound effect on Russia’s own attitude towards the West, not only before the Revolution of 1917 but after it.”
Ultimately, it would appear that today’s world expresses the ideas that go back to the sources of our civilizations: Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) Christianity, Eastern and Western Roman Empires, two different sets of political culture, political institutions. We find the echo of it in Dostoevsky too, in “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” in his criticism of Caesaro-papism, don’t we?
AN: Russia is born with a sense of a threat to its civilizational identity; it defends itself against the specter of political and spiritual colonization. This is how the fundamental idea of Russia is formed: Moscow – the Third Rome. Ruthenia linked its identity with Byzantium, with the Orthodox center of civilization. In 988, at the time of Vladimir the Great’s choice of state religion for Kievan Rus, this Byzantine center seemed to be an unchallenged alternative to “Latin” identity. In the 15th century, this center collapsed.
Orthodox civilization was then the basis of identity of only one sovereign political center: Moscow. Triumphant “Latin” pressed on it from the West, and Islam from the South. If Moscow dies, all civilization will die. Civilizational violence threatens the Orthodox world primarily from the West, from the “Latin” side. Byzantium itself succumbed to the West’s temptation just before the fall, accepting the ecclesiastical union in Florence (Moscow rejects this temptation). However, at stake in this game is not only defense against civilizational violence. The fate of the world is at stake, since it is about defending not so much one civilization as such, but the only true religion and its place in the world. Philotheus, the monk of the Pskov monastery of Eleazar, writes about it, puts this thought into words and presents it as an ideal-mission addressed to the power of the Moscow principality.
Laid out for the first time in a message to Grand Duke Vasilii III (around 1514-1521) and elaborated in letters in the years following, the idea of Moscow – Rome III – became the best known and most frequently updated concept of Russia’s special mission from the 19th to the 21st century. Thanks to this, Philotheus can be considered the first intellectual in the history of Russia. He is not an official writing for the state.
He is, in a sense, a man from the margins (Pskov had only just joined Moscow in 1510), passionately experiencing public affairs, the affairs of his spiritual and political community and seeking to rescue it in the face of a new great “civilizational” challenge. He seeks this rescue in the sphere of ideas and suggests it to the authorities. He does not appear as an unconditional servant of this authority, but shows its immense responsibility to protect the great idea it reveals.
Philotheus also shows examples of the betrayal of this idea by the state power – in Rome I and in Rome II (Byzantium) – and the punishment of the inevitable fall that the government’s betrayal of the ideal entails. Philotheus teaches authority: “let him know… let him remember….” He sets the condition: “If you will arrange your empire well – you will be a son of light and an inhabitant of upper Jerusalem, and, as I wrote above, so now I say: beware and note that all Christian empires have joined in yours, that two Romes have fallen and the third is standing. There will be no fourth. Contrary to the widespread interpretation of this text, it seems that it is not an unequivocal expression of faith that Moscow will always remain Rome III, that it will certainly bear the burden of this responsibility. Moscow is also threatened with the “Sodom sin,” an internal apostasy warned against by the voice of a 16th-century “intellectual.”
Philotheus only states that Moscow has no one to replace it, in its great mission to save the truth and the world. If it collapses – Rome will certainly not exist; there will be no more truth and justice in the world. That is why Moscow must not be allowed to fall! This is the pathos of the mission assigned by Philotheus to the Orthodox empire, and thus the pathos of his own, “first intelligence” of the mission.
Combined with Moscow’s heritage of Rome – empire, strength, and Jerusalem – is the heritage of the spirit. And against the world in which “lies in evil.” In practice, to the ”Latin” and Western world, which in the 16th century, after an internal split connected with the Reformation, and which entered the phase of great colonial expansion and became an obvious source of the problem of modernization and, at the same time, Moscow gives models and techniques for solving it. Russia needs to strengthen its empire to save its spiritual identity from the threat from the West, and thus maintain the ability to salvage/save/liberate the whole world. This is how the thought of Philoteus is read by some in intellectual circles and is not without influence on contemporary public opinion in Russia.
ZJ: Hostility, mutual suspicion between the Russians and the Poles is well known. The Polish see Russians as aggressors, the country that dismembered Poland in the 18th century, that erased the Dutchy of Warsaw in the 19th century. The Poles fought the Russians in the 1919-1920 war, after Poland regained statehood in 1918, after 123 years. Finally, it was Soviet Russia which imposed communist rule on Poland after WWII. This is only a handful of historical events that shape the attitude of the Poles toward Russia. Putin’s hostile attitude toward Poland today can be seen as the continuation of “the old story.”
However, looking at Polish-Russian relationships in a long historical perspective, one can see a different picture. If one takes into account the Polish conquest of most of White Russia and the Ukraine – in the 17th century Polish forces came close to Moscow, but were driven out. Russia can see itself not as aggressor but as a victim of Western aggression, of Western or Latin Christianity against the true Eastern Christianity, the Orthodox Church. If you add to it Napoleon’s Russian adventure, then the German invasion, the feeling of victimhood gets more augmented. One could say, Russia’s imperial posture was never motivated by the desire to dominate others but was a defensive posture, a posture that Russia had to assume to save herself and her Orthodox faith. Can such an argument on behalf of Russia be made?
AN: Yes, Russia has for centuries justified its expansion with the need to obtain a “security buffer” that would protect it against aggressive neighbors from the East and West. When Moscow began its expansion in the 15th century, it occupied a territory the size of the state of Utah. She “felt” threatened by her neighbors, such as the Tver principality or the republic of Novgorod – she absorbed these neighbors.
Then she “felt” threatened by subsequent neighbors. In the West, it was Lithuania, which was joined in the 14th century by many small principalities of Kievan Rus (today’s Ukraine and Belarus), emerging from the rule of the Mongolian Golden Horde. Moscow then announced the ideology of “collecting Ruthenian lands” (which had never belonged to Moscow before).
Poland did not make any conquest of the lands of Belarus or Ukraine, but entered into a dynastic union with Lithuania in 1385 – and on this basis (the marriage of the Grand Duke of Lithuania Jagiełło with the Queen of Poland, Jadwiga), a state union was established, which for four hundred years united Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania, including the lands of today’s Belarus and Ukraine.
During these four hundred years, Moscow had been waging a series of wars in which it had finally taken all these territories, except for a small scrap of former Russia which was occupied by Austria as a result of the partitions of Poland.
At the same time, in the East, Moscow “felt” threatened by the remnants of the Mongolian Golden Horde, the Kazan, Astrakhan and Siberian khanates – and conquered them militarily in half a century (1550-1600).
Then, of course, it was “threatened” again by successive neighbors, small khanates, in Central Asia – it took them all by the mid-19th century. It also reached China at the end of the 17th century. And she felt “threatened” by China. However, it has not managed to permanently remove this threat, that is, to conquer China.
In the South, Russia “felt,” from the 16th century, “threatened” by Turkey and Persia, so it began to conquer their possessions, including Transcaucasia – Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, as well as the Crimean Khanate on the Black Sea. It has not yet conquered Turkey itself (although that was the goal of Russian policy from the end of the 18th century). But she still “feels” threatened by Turkey. After the partition of Poland, under Catherine II at the end of the 18th century, Russia became a neighbor of Prussia. Of course, she “felt” threatened by the power of Germany united by Prussia in the times of Bismarck.
If we adopt such a logic of a threat that justifies defensive conquests only. Then let us note that from the 15th century to the end of the 18th century, Russia conquered on average about 60,000 square kilometers each year, combined territories of Maryland and Massachusetts. Each year, Russia was enlarging its territory in this way for over 300 years!
Stalin, in the name of this logic, persuaded Roosevelt to agree in Tehran and Yalta to give Russia (the Soviet Union) a “security buffer” covering all of Eastern and Central Europe, including Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, and including half of Berlin and Vienna. Of course, he still could not “feel” safe. Russia’s security can only mean to bring the whole of Eurasia under its control, from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
You can accept this reasoning only if you see in it an analogy to the American “Manifest Destiny.” But it is worth asking the opinion of the inhabitants of all the countries that first Moscow, then imperial Russia, and finally the Soviet Union, conquered in the name of Russia’s “sense of security” and the right to “self-defense.”
ZJ: Let us talk about 1989, the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, and 1991, the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Eastern European countries rushed to join the EU. Russia, on the other hand, is where it always was. For the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, the citizens of the Baltic states – Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia (former Soviet “republics”) – the motivation was not just economic but cultural above all. One could hear the language of “returning to Europe” after decades of the culturally foreign rule. What prevented Russia from getting closer to Europe after the collapse of Communism?
AN: We need to remember, Russia has formed its political and cultural identity as an Orthodox empire, in contrast, often, against Latin, that is, Catholic Europe. Under Mongol rule for two and a half centuries, it was, as it were, forcibly opened to Asia. Since the 15th century, Moscow, pursuing a policy of “collecting Ruthenian lands,” entered into intense diplomatic and trade relations with European powers: the Habsburg Empire, and the England of Elizabeth, in order to geopolitically surround its immediate neighbors.
However, Russia did not participate in the spiritual life of Europe, in the crucial period of the Renaissance. Only from the Baroque, actually from the end of the 17th century, does Russia interact with the intellectual currents animating European culture. At that time, however, Russia had already made a great march in the opposite direction to the former Asian steppe empires – from the Western end of the Great Steppe, over the Black Sea, it reached the Pacific; in the 17th century it began to border China, Korea, followed by Japan.
Such a geopolitically enlarged Russia could no longer enter Europe, “fit” in it. The intellectual challenge, often fascinatingly analyzed by Russian writers and ideologues, is not “Russia in Europe,” but “Russia and Europe.” Space – prostor – history and religion make up a deeply rooted political culture in Russia. Together they create a “mental map” on which the memory of Tchaikovsky’s ballets, Pushkin’s poems or Dostoevsky’s novels is not “evidence” of Russia’s Europeanness, but a reason for imperial pride, along with the equally grateful memory of Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Stalin.
ZJ: Let me go back one more time to 1989. One thing one notices is that the 1989 European dream in Eastern European countries is gone, and to some, the dream became a nightmare. Brexit is the prime example of that. The British sentiment can be said to be this – we did not sign up for that. We did not think our sovereignty would be limited to such an extent. This is what one hears in Budapest and Warsaw.
Recently, I asked a Polish politician – what do you think of a Polish Brexit? To my surprise, he said: “Nothing would make me happier.” Let me stress – this is not a view prevalent among Poles, most of them like where they are. But there is a considerable segment of Polish society which considers it as a serious intellectual option. The reason is the sovereignty of the Polish or Hungarian state, which EU crushes – the sovereignty that Poland was deprived of, first by partition and then the Soviet rule. It should not surprise anyone why Poles (but also others) are sensitive about a bunch of Euro-bureaucrats deciding their fate. You cannot be yourself – English, Polish, French, Italian – you must be a “European,” which means being a total abstraction.
A few months ago, I saw a headline in a major Polish newspaper: “EU must defend its citizens in Poland.” The article concerned so called minorities. According to the liberal Polish newspaper, they are EU citizens and therefore, Polish laws are violations of their rights as EU citizens. One wants to repeat after Bentham, it is nonsense on stilts, yet it is the de facto European reality. Was the post-communist dream false, or did the West change in the last 30 years?
AN: Both. The expectations of the intellectual opposition in Poland towards the West were certainly exaggerated. The image of the “free world” depicted in our imagination in contrast to the gray and openly oppressive world of the “Communist camp” was idealized.
At the same time, however, it must be remembered that the West in 1989 was still the West, politically represented by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and above all – John Paul II was in Rome. Back then in Europe they referred to the so-called founding fathers of the European Union, to their Christian-democratic roots: Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi, Robert Schuman.
Marxism, after the obvious failure of this ideology in the countries under its authority, seemed finished, at least from our perspective. In 2020, you can see how Marxist inspiration fills the longest shelves with philosophy and politics in bookstores in Paris and London. As it dominates universities in Western Europe and our part of Europe, described in a postcolonial way as “new” (“new” democracies, “new” Europe, etc.), it actually follows these trends in a way that perfectly confirms the mechanisms described by some theorists of postcolonial studies.
However, part of the “intellectual layer,” and many so-called ordinary people, in countries with a strong historical and cultural identity of their own, such as Hungary, Poland or the Czech Republic, still keep the memory of the real experience of enslavement by the Communist logocracy, from which today comes the political correctness that dominates in the West and is imposed on us. That is why this new enslavement, this time coming from the West, is met with some resistance here.
However, fears of the real neo-imperialism of Putin’s Russia do not allow countries, such as Poland or Lithuania, to suddenly cut off from the European community, even in its present, disastrous shape. We can try to change Europe, stop this fatal process from within. This is what worries the Brussels, Parisian and Berlin political and intellectual elites. They ascribe to themselves the role of teacher and therapist for a “backward,” “sick” part of Europe (here the most frequently mentioned are Hungary and Poland).
In fact, I see in this attitude also a deep fear that the attitude of the elites currently ruling in Poland and Hungary, in matters of culture, customs, understanding of the European tradition – may turn out to be attractive to many Germans, French, Italians, and Spaniards – who do not necessarily want to run after the “bright future” promised by European progress officials. Many European people are looking to defend their common sense against ideological madness. Some people recall that Europe has always been rich because of its diversity and not of top-down centralization, and not by exchanging arguments about the good life, development models, and not by imposing “just the right approach.”
ZJ: What you have said makes me think of a famous sentence from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859): “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting the end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate to find one.”
Unlike democracy, despotism or autocracy, with which we associate the Orient and Russia, is not a political system or a theory of government. Rather, it is mode of governing a people. As a specialist on Russia, can you say that Mill’s words apply well to the state of Russian society at that time? In other words, is autocracy a system of government – the only force that could guarantee social and political order?
AN: I would disagree. Aleksander Wat, a Polish futurist poet who passed through nearly 20 prisons of Stalinist Russia during World War II, once gave a very good definition of the Soviet system – the absolute concentration of absolute power on an absolutely large area. An alternative to despotism (i.e., centralism) may be federalism – the development of regional self-government in a territorially large state.
Let me remind you that until the beginning of the 16th century, the Polish-Lithuanian state was larger in terms of territory than Moscow and until the partitions (in 1772) it was the second largest state on the European continent. And it was on such a large area that a system of decentralized authority was created, based on local self-government (district councils), which functioned well from at least the 15th to the 17th century.
As is known in the United States, this system continues. In Moscow, they also showed possibilities of developing a system of representation of the society several times: at the beginning of the 17th century, in the form of the so-called “earthly councils.” The movement of local, that is, earthly self-government, became strong again at the end of the 19th century – this is the self-government in which people like Chekhov and the heroes of his plays could find their place.
The defenders of despotism as the only recipe for the problems of the great state refer to one argument above all: if we do not have a tsar and we do not listen to him – then we will lose the empire. Putin successfully appealed to this argument after the last great experience of the crisis of the empire, which also coincided with the revival of Russian self-government – in 1991.
Ultimately, the dilemma faced by the supporters of this power for Russians (and not only for them) is – either size (grandezza as Machiavelli would say), or freedom – a liberta. You want greatness, give up your (republican, self-governing) freedom. At the same time, a new tone appears in this argumentation – state despotism (meaning the lack of civil self-government) can be reconciled with liberalism – economic and the right to privacy.
In the Russian philosophical tradition of Slavicism, there is such a contrast – the state is a heavy-duty power – and society willingly gives its burden to the people of power, and itself enjoys non-political freedom. And this is probably not only the Russian tradition, but the constantly reviving temptation to organize political life without citizens. There is only the state (and its guardians) – and on the other end – individual consumers.
ZJ: Could one say the same thing about China, and the Chinese leaders’ rhetoric that we have been hearing for about 20 years – that what China fears the most is anarchy. Ergo, the Chinese Communist Party is the sole guardian of social order; and since anarchy is worse than anything, despotism or autocracy is a legitimate way of governing the population. Some 15 years ago, Boris Johnson wrote a piece for the Spectator, where he accepted this view about anarchy in China, which makes me think that Chinese rhetoric works. Today Johnson is Prime minister, and what he thinks can translate into his country’s foreign policy.
AN: China has just adopted the model I outlined at the end of the answer to the previous question. Does this mean that it is the only model that suits the Chinese? After an intense indoctrination lasting for generations, one can get this impression. The Chinese from Hong Kong have a different opinion, however.
Please allow me to express my opinion on Prime Minister Johnson’s view and on Mill’s remark earlier cited. Well, I see them as a reflection of the imperial-colonial tradition, especially strong in the English (later also American) elites. Outside of Great Britain, and maybe even outside the club, which brings together the elite from Eton and Oxbridge, there are actually no gentlemen. There are barbarians all around – at least to the East of Germany are surely the habitats of barbaria. The barbarians living there can be cannibals, if that suits them, we – gentlemen from the club – will not hinder trading with them.
The most cynical example of this attitude I found in the liberal prime minister, David Lloyd George, who in 1920, when he initiated political negotiations with Lenin, said that he did not care about the political principles of these barbarians, let them even have the Mikado – it is their business, as long as they kill other barbarians (this is what Lloyd George meant about the Armia Czerowna – the Red Army – which at that moment was storming Warsaw). And let them get together as they please – this is their freedom. And this is our liberalism that we will not impose our political standards on them. We must reach an agreement with them, if they are so strong that without them it is impossible to establish a global order. This is a specific combination of liberalism (à la Lloyd George) and imperial Realpolitik.
In America, this is the approach of many – formerly Henry Kissinger, now John Mearsheimer. For me, this is a very short-sighted doctrine of appeasement – the false hope that aggressive despotism will feed on victims only from the circle of “barbarians.” Eventually, however, comes the moment when the “barbarians” start eating the gentlemen. Such is the logic of despotic empires. It is perfectly summarized by the saying of Bezborodko, Chancellor of Catherine II – what does not grow, rots. The despotic empire must continue to expand – otherwise it risks imploding. And they know this very well not only in Russia, but also in China. It is good that this has also been remembered in London and Chicago.
ZJ: Now that the Democrat Biden has become president of the United States, we will have a different foreign policy. If you were on the team of Russia advisers to the president, what would you say should be the US policy vis-à-vis Russia?
AN: President Biden will have other advisers. I can only express some concerns based on the historical experience with the presidents of the United States, who over the past three decades came from the Democratic Party and represented a left-liberal ideology. They were, let me remind you, Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama.
The former started with dreams of a “reset” with Russia. Fortunately, Russia was so weak during this period that it could not take advantage of this policy. The disaster happened under Obama, who has the blood of hundreds of thousands of people in Syria on his hands. His complete irresponsibility led to an escalation of the civil war and to the re-installing of Putin’s Russia as a key player in the Middle East.
Obama also made a significant gesture to Putin – he resigned from the project adopted by the previous administration (Bush Jr.) to install the so-called anti-missile shield in Poland. President Obama announced his decision to withdraw from this project, which was indeed very irritating to Putin and which strengthened the sense of security for Poland and the entire region of Central and Eastern Europe, on September 17, 2009. It was exactly the 70th anniversary of the Red Army’s invasion of Poland in 1939.
Putin may have felt invited to a new expansion – and he tried it in Ukraine. At that time, however, President Obama was probably instructed by people who knew the rules of world security better than him – and there was a certain reaction to the aggression in Crimea, and then in the Donbas.
What am I afraid of? That under the slogan of the fight for a “brave new world,” led again by liberal America, the US president will not recognize that it is not good stigmatizing smaller countries that do not accept this ideology and handing them over to Russia as “pariahs of the democratic order.” It does not have to be democratic or liberal, but it is very important to this vision of “restoring order” that it be fulfilled by restoring its former zone of domination (Ukraine? Maybe Poland? Maybe most of Central and Eastern Europe?).
In short, I am afraid of combining the slogans of the ideological “crusade” (actually, anti-crusade) inside the so-called Western community, understood as a community of LGBTQ+ rights and unlimited abortion – with a practical policy of the so-called realism in relations with non-Western empires such as Russia. The costs of such a policy would be paid primarily by the countries of the inter-imperial border, such as Poland, Lithuania, or – on the border with China – Korea and Taiwan.
ZJ: Given what you said about Russia and China, it seems to me to be only proper to invoke here two Frenchmen. In the 1830, they embarked on long trips in two different directions – Alexis de Tocqueville went to America; Marquis de Custine went to Russia.
Not much was known about the two countries. Before Tocqueville published his book, there were, I believe, only three or four books about America. Tocqueville’s and his young companion Beaumont’s books were the first ones to offer an exhaustive view of both the country and, above all, American democracy.
De Custine, on the other hand, was looking for an alternative to democracy. For Custine, in the words of Robin Buss, the English translator and editor of his Letters, “democracy meant mob rule and the dictatorship of public opinion, through rabble-rousing speeches and the press.” Encouraged by his friend Balzac and the Polish Count Ignacy Gurowski, he set out for Russia.
The fruit of his visit is Russia (1839), or The Letters from Russia. By today’s standards, Tocqueville’s book is an international bestseller, and everyone who wants to understand democracy must read it. Given its success in the 20th century, the popularity of Tocqueville’s work is not surprising. However, the 21st century is different.
The rise of China with its autocratic style of government should be of concern to everyone. Russian democracy is a democracy in name only; for all intents and purposes it is a mild form of old autocracy. The difference between it and China is that the Chinese rulers do not hide their contempt for democracy, Xi Jing Ping openly says that the system is a failure. Both leaders share two things – the respective countries’ tradition of autocratic rule (strengthened in the 20th century by the experience of Communism) and the belief that only autocratic rule is capable of preventing a country from sliding into anarchy.
Would you agree that given democracy’s current performance in America and Europe, there is every reason to read de Custine’s account.
AN: People knew quite a lot about Russia in France before de Custine. Let us recall, for example, that the French Grand Army visited Russia in 1812, and two years later France was “returned” by the Russian army (Normandy was a Russian occupation zone for two years). A lot of arguments have already been gathered, both on the side of Russophobia and Russophilia.
The first French treaty stigmatizing the Russian political system as oriental despotism was published in 1771. It was written by Abbé Chappe d’Auteroche who visited Siberia (voluntarily), and Catherine II herself replied to him with a two-volume refutation of his arguments (I write about it at length in my recent book, entitled, Metamorphoses of the Russian Empire 1721-1921). This work, published immediately in French under the title Antidote and translated into English, was not only the defense of Russia’s right to the name of a European power, but also the justification of the autocracy.
As I argue in this book, in such a huge country as Russia, another form of power would lead to disintegration. The Russian system is not despotic, but a noble, enlightened absolutism, motivated by concern for the greatness of the state and the welfare of its subjects. So much for Catherine the Great. And it is so today, until the time of Putin’s apologists.
These arguments excellently convinced the French elite (and not only them). After all, Montesquieu said the same – this is why we should refer to de Custine’s work, because it helps us understand that the nature of the Russian despotic system is not autocracy itself, but above all lies, systematic, omnipresent, gradually disturbing cognitive abilities. The lie of the subjects against the authorities, the lie of the authorities against the subjects, and the systematic lie of the power of the Empire against its foreign partners.
No partner is actually a partner; each one is treated as an enemy to be deceived and manipulated. The KGB school, from which most of Russia’s current political elite hails, has raised this ability to lie to an incomparably higher degree than was possible in the days of Nicholas I and de Custine.
The contradiction of the various “narratives” that this Russian rule presents about itself is staggering. For the right wing, Putin is to be the “eschaton” of the Christian order, the last defender of the Cross against neo-paganism and Islam. For the Left (the propaganda of the Russia Today television station is addressed to this audience) – the last tough opponent of hated America, to some extent heir to Lenin’s Russia. For Western businessmen – a model of a good business partner. And so on. Whoever reads de Custine will understand the genesis of these narratives.
ZJ: Russia is not the only country that created national myths, such as the Third Rome. Other nations have this tendency too: Rule Britannia, the City on the Hill, the Third Reich, and many, many others.
The Poles – very much like the French – are obsessed with national history. They created a myth which is not about ruling the world but saving the Western World from barbarian onslaught. It is the myth of the antemurale chirstianitatis, the Bulwark of Christianity. The origin of it is not Polish. As far as I know, it was coined in 15th century, during the papacy of Pius II. It was Skadenberg, an Albanian Nobleman, who coined the term, which meant that Albania (and Croatia) was Italy’s Christian bulwark against the Ottoman Empire. Poles adopted it; it functions in Poland, but in Poland it means more than the fight against the Muslims or infidels at the battle of Vienna on September 11 (!) 1683, where the Poles defeated the Turks. It is understood as antemurale against the East, Orient, the oriental despotism. It includes Russia as a barbarian force as well. Given the Christian (Orthodox) nature of Russia, is this historical vision justified; and using it against Eastern Orthodoxy, are we not in danger of creating a false historical imagination?
AN: I do not know if Poles are “obsessed” with national history. I have a different impression when I look at the youth which is protesting today in the streets of Polish cities with the most vulgar words, to emphasize their hatred for the Catholic Church, Christian tradition and the historical identity of Poland.
Let me make a comment on this issue. It is difficult, for example, for Belgium to be “obsessed” with its history, since it was created as a completely artificial state entity less than 200 years ago. It is difficult for Germany to express “obsession with history,” that is pride in its tradition, for obvious reasons. Simply put, nations have different histories, of different lengths, and different intensity as to how this history is experienced by social groups of different sizes. No one matches China in this respect. When you compare Poles with Jews, the Jews will undoubtedly turn out to be a nation much more “obsessed with their history.”
And now about the “bulwark of Christianity.” Again – a complete misunderstanding. The idea of a bulwark appears in Polish history in 1241 – during the great Mongol invasion. After the conquest of Ruthenia (Kievan Rus’ or Ruthenia!!! – not Russia), the Mongols moved to Hungary and Poland. On April 9, 1241, the prince of Poland, Henry the Pious blocked the way of the Mongols near Legnica. He led about 7000 – 8000 Polish and German knights, including 36 Templars. The prince was killed, the battle was lost, but the Mongols, having suffered heavy losses (similar to the parallel battle fought in Hungary), turned back.
The mood in Latin Europe at that time was truly apocalyptic. The fear of the Mongols as invaders from a completely different, completely alien world, as if of an invasion of the Martians, paralyzed the will of defense in many, but fired the imagination of no fewer people in the Latin West. Part of the Jewish communities scattered around the cities of the Reich were very excited about the news of the mysterious approaching Mongols. The Jews waited for liberation in the year of 5000 (1240/1241), which was exactly at this time on their calendar. There were also those who expected such liberation to come from the hands of the Mongols. In fact, some even saw in Genghis Khan the Messiah, the son of David.
After the defeat in Legnica, the echoes quickly reached even out to Frankfurt am Main, where the local Jews in May opposed with unprecedented audacity the baptism of one of their fellow believers who had freely chosen Christianity. It ended on May 24 with a terrible pogrom, which brought upon the Jews the fear of the Frankfurters and rumors of favoring the wild invaders from the East by the followers of Moses. The threatened rulers, including the Hungarian king Béla IV, the Czech king Wenceslaus I, Prince Frederick of Austria, and the emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen himself, in letters, called for defense against the Mongols.
This was the context in which in Poland, Henryk the Pious, Legnica appeared, the heroic but lost fight on the Eastern fringes of the empire and Latin Europe. And this was the beginning of not only a myth, but a practical experience, the last (thus far) military act which, in Poland, is considered as having stopped the invasion of Central Europe by the Bolshevik Red Army in the summer of 1920, in the Battle of Warsaw. Legnica 1241 was most often mentioned in the journalism of the time. Will new experiences be added to this in the 21st century? I do not know, but I do not rule it out.
ZJ: Allow me to finish this conversation with a question which has been on my mind for many years. At the beginning of the 1990s, Poles coined the word “lustracja” (from the word “lustro,” mirror) which means “mirroring.” It is a made-up term that describes the process of making former communists, State apparatchiks, secret agents and collaborators accountable for their participation in building socialism. In the post-communist societies people who did not support socialism, who suffered, who were persecuted or prevented from social advancement felt it necessary to expose those who upheld the system, who held power at the expense of the people who refused to participate in the Great Lie.
It was a form of showing the former commies and collaborators that their participation in the system was simply a matter of human indecency.
Unlike Poland, former Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Russia have never undergone such a process – no moral or legal punishment for the former communists and collaborators. The old communists and collaborators, KGB agents, like Putin, became the lords of the New Russia. No such thing would be imaginable in Soviet satellite countries.
In your expert opinion, first, how significant has been the lack of “lustration” for the moral health of Russia, and, second, did the Russians realize what Communism did to Russia?
AN: The importance of this issue was best described by James Billington, an outstanding scholar of Russian thought and culture, in his book Russia in Search of Itself. Let me quote a key excerpt from the summary of this book: “There are essentially four ways that a nation can move beyond the fact of massive complicity in unprecedented evil. 1. Remove the problem from public consciousness. 2. Transfer the burden of evil to others. 3 . Evade the problem of evil in society by creating a noble personal philosophy for an elite. 4. Overcome evil by accepting the redemptive power of innocent suffering.”
This book was published in 2004. In 2020, it can be said that the official policy of remembrance in Putin’s Russia is a combination of the first two attitudes. The attitude most consistent with the Christian, Orthodox tradition, listed as the fourth in this list, has been marginalized.
As early as 2004, Billington was able to accurately pinpoint the cause of this state of affairs: “What is missing for this fact to open up broader redemptive possibilities for the Russian people is accountability, or even searching self-scrutiny, on the part of the Church itself.”
I am sorry to note that the lack of full accountability in a part of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Poland, for the cooperative spying of a small minority of priests with the communist police system in 1945-1989, also brings poisoned fruit into my country, Poland.
ZJ: Do you see any similarities between this and participating in all kinds of PC projects today – which is all morally questionable? Many people in the West, especially in academia, sold themselves to the Devil for the same reason that communists of old did. They are willing to justify today’s injustice in the name of future benefits. I am afraid, they, like the former commies will wake up from their dream of the better world, where all are equal and happy – very disappointed.
AN: Conformism, the lack of civil courage, is the most important, established and widespread feature of academia, at least in the humanities and social sciences. The ideology of “emancipation,” which today is the main instrument of the degradation of these areas, works – in my opinion – on a slightly different principle than you presented in your question.
In fact, under the lofty slogans of redressing past wrongs (towards women, animals, sexual minorities, and countries once colonized), professors of sociology, English studies, philosophy, political science, history and similar fields (displaced by new, more politically correct combinations) are ruthlessly fighting for their particular, current interests – for survival in a ruthless struggle. Survival of the fittest – this is the reality of this essentially amoral struggle, in which the stakes are a professorship, appearing on television, or the role of a social media star – and the alternative is the loss of a job, or experience of attacks by the media and environmental campaigns.
Adapt to the ideology currently imposed by the big media and their disposers – this is the method of survival. This is how the cultural revolution unfolds, more and more like the one that swept through China under Mao Zedong. Anyone who does not want the media and groups of students manipulated by it – to put on a “hat of shame” (as was done in China) – must join in stigmatizing colleagues who are still defending themselves against such degradation.
There is no labor camp waiting for them yet, but it is becoming more and more real to hand over those who still have the courage to think “incorrectly” to therapy, into the hands of therapists who will, anyway, remove “wrong” thoughts, concepts, and memories from their defiant heads. .
Probably no one has described the attitudes of intellectuals subjected to terror and the temptation to justify their cowardice better than the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz in his book, The Captive Mind. It is a book written in 1951 about the Polish intelligentsia conquered by the Stalinist diamat (dialectical materialism). This is also a book about the situation today at American and European universities. It is worth reading again.”
ZJ: Thank you, Dr. Nowak for this enlightening conversation.
The image shows, “Introduction of Christianity in Poland,” by Jan Matejko, painted in 1889.
This month we are so very pleased to publish the English version of an interview with Dr. Arnaud Imatz, the renowned French historian, who has published over a dozen books and numerous articles in both European and American journals and magazines. Dr. Imatz has contributed several times to the Postil. Here, Dr. Imtaz is in conversation with La Tribuna del Pais Vasco in regards to his new book, Vascos y Navarros (Basques and Navarrese).
La Tribuna (LT): How did the idea of writing the book, Vascos y Navarros, come about?
Arnaud Imatz (AI): I started by writing a chronological article in French and was surprised to see it published in a tourist guide in which they did not even mention my name. As a result, I decided to considerably revise and expand that article. More than anything, it is a small tribute to my ancestors. They were Basques, Navarrese and Béarnais. They were fishermen, bakers, vintners, public works contractors, military men, carpenters, tobacco growers, booksellers, restaurant owners and hoteliers, located for the most part in Hendaye.
I was born in Bayonne, but after a few months of life I was already going with my mother to the beach at Hendaye, La Pointe, right by Fuenterrabía. A beautiful place, now gone, having been replaced by the beautiful but conventional marina, the marina of Sokoburu. With my wife, my son and my two daughters, I first in Paris and then for twenty years in Madrid. I have unforgettable memories of Madrid and close friends (even a true “spiritual son”). But I spent most of my time – more than forty years – in the Basque Country, an exceptional place in the world.
Of course, my Galician, Breton, Andalusian or Corsican friends may disagree. This is normal. My children and grandchildren, who live further north, and my wife, born in the Ile-de-France (although of partly Biscayan descent), sometimes make fun of my excessive attachment to the land. But what difference does it make! I also had my doubts and reacted with skepticism when in the distant 1980s a Basque friend, a professor of Law, who had been a member of the tribunal that examined my doctoral thesis, answered my questions: “How about La Reunion? La Martinique?” etc.: “Well, well, but you know that when you see Biriatu ….” He didn’t even bother to finish his sentence. Now I know he was right.
LT: So your family has deep roots in the Basque Country?
AI: Yes, indeed. My surname, Imatz or Imaz, meaning “wicker,” “of wicker,” “pasture,” or “reed,” is found, above all, in the Basque Autonomous Community, but it is also present, although less frequently, in Navarre and the French Basque Country. On my mother’s side of the family, there are a good number of Basque surnames. Most were born and lived in Hendaye. Some moved away, went to work in different cities in France or Spain (Madrid, Palencia or Andalusia), even in America. But sooner or later almost all of them returned to their native town in the French Basque Country.
My maternal grandfather was Basque, Carlist and of course Catholic. He kept a beret his whole life which was given to his family by Don Carlos. He worked in hotels in Guayaquil and London and later in the María Cristina de San Sebastián, when it opened in 1912. During the First World War, he was a gunner in the Battle of Verdun. Once demobilized, he returned to Hendaye to take over his parents’ hotel. He spoke Basque and French, but also Spanish, like most of the members of my family at that time; and by the way, they were very closely connected with Spain and the Spanish.
At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, my great-grandfather had a brother, who was parish priest in Biriatu. He was dedicated to his priesthood, but he also liked to play pelota. Yes! And always wearing his cassock. He became very involved in the defense and safeguarding of the Basque language and culture. Such were the famous French-Basque priests of yesteryear.
My great-aunt used to play the piano and she taught me, among other things, the Oriamendi and the Hymn of San Marcial. From her house, located on the banks of the Bidasoa, she could see the Alarde de Irún and at night hear, although very rarely, the whispers of the smugglers. My great-aunt and great-grandmother (a strong widow who had been the director of the Hendaye Casino in the 1920s) told me many memories of our border family.
LT: Can you tell us about some of these memories?
AI: Some anecdotes. A few months before he died, my Carlist grandfather, naturally in favor of the national side, negotiated with Commander Julián Troncoso, a friend of his, for the exchange of a friend from the Republican side, Pepita Arrocena. As a result of the attempted Socialist Revolution, in 1934, Pepita had crossed the border with her driver and with the socialist leader, Indalecio Prieto, hidden in the trunk of her car.
Also, French friends of my grandfather participated in the unsuccessful assault on the Republican submarine C2, which was anchored in the port of Brest. I must say that during the Civil War, many foreign correspondents used to stay at my grandparents’ hotel.
At the end of the war, my grandmother, now a widow, was close friends with the wife of Marshal Pétain, French ambassador to Spain. But two years later, being in the so-called “forbidden” area, in the middle of the Nazi occupation, and despite her friendship with Annie Pétain, the “Marshal,” my grandmother sympathized with the Gaullists and participated in anti-German Resistance. She was in contact with the ORA (Organization de Résistance de l’Armée) of the Basque Country, along with her friend, Dr. Alberto Anguera Angles, from Irune, who was in charge of routing messages of those escaping from France.
The other branch of my family, the paternal one, was Béarnaise, from Pau and Orthez. My paternal grandfather was a Catholic Republican, a non-commissioned officer who was one of the most decorated soldiers of the First World War. Handicapped by the war, he settled in Hendaye in 1919, with his wife and four children as a tobacconist and bookseller. His son, my father, was born in Hendaye six months later.
My father was a great athlete, who was four times French pelota champion in the 1930s and 1940s, with the long bat (pala larga) and in the plaza libre (court). My paternal family was then divided between the stalwarts of Marshal Pétain (my grandfather), and the supporters of Charles de Gaulle (his four sons, among whom were my father and my godfather). The oldest of my grandfather’s sons was seriously injured at Dunkirk.
All these family memories made me understand very early that history is not Manichean, that it is always made of light and dark, that there are no absolute good and bad, that there are no so-called historical or democratic justices as peddled by the traffickers of hatred and resentment, who are miserable political puppets who live to play with fire.
LT: In your opinion, do more things unite or separate Basques and the Navarrese?
AI: To answer in detail it would be necessary to refer to the long history of the medieval Basque counties, the kingdom of Navarre, Spain, the Hispanic Empire and the French nation-state. These are topics that I address, albeit briefly, in the historical summary given in my book. I would of course be unable to summarize all these substantial issues in a few words. I concede that personally, despite my nationality, and due to my Spanish-French culture, I sympathize much more with the Hispanic Catholic Empire of Charles V and Philip II than with the Gallican-Catholic French nation-state of Richelieu, Louis XIII, Louis XIV and the Revolutionaries of 1789 and 1792. We already know that the “reason of state” of these French politicians was greatly influenced by Machiavelli and indirectly by the writings and attitude of the Protestants. That said, five, ten or fifteen centuries of common history cannot just be erased, manipulated, or misrepresented.
Now, if in your question you refer essentially to our own time, I will tell you that, paradoxically, there are more and more things that unite the Basques and Navarrese and less that separate them. But, beware! This does not mean that I fall into those independence or separatist dreams. What I think is happening is that both these peoples are losing their specificities and are gradually uniting – but unfortunately into nothingness, in the great meat-grinder of globalism.
Let me explain. At this point, we are all victims of globalization, consumerism, commercialism, demographic decline, multicultural individualism, the decline of religion and the Church and Christianity – all these many plagues that have shown themselves, in the long run, to be much more corrosive and deadly for both the Basques and the Navarrese (and also in general for all the peoples of Europe) than the “forty years of Franco’s dictatorship,” or the “Bourbon centralism of the 19th century,” or “French Jacobin centralism.”
It is true, thank God, that our lands (which have sometimes been marked by savage violence unworthy of human beings) have not endured the horrors of Nazism, or worse still (because of the sheer number of deaths) the monstrosities of Marxist-communist totalitarianism. In this, the radical nationalists are completely blind and are totally wrong as to who the enemy is. Torn apart by the hodgepodge of Marxist internationalism and what Americans call “cultural Marxism,” the radical, Abertzale left has become the perfect ally of hypercapitalism or globalist turbocapitalism. The two, globalists and nationalist-separatists, are tearing apart the best of the Navarrese and Basque values, the deepest roots of both peoples. In the background are two grips of the same vise.
LT: In your opinion, what does Euskara mean for the reality of Basques and Navarrese?
AI: It is an important factor, but not enough to define the entirety of Basque identity and reality. Just as important are ethnicity, demographics, culture, and history. There are Euskaldunak Basques, because they speak the Basque language. There are Euskotarrak Basques because they are ethnically defined as Basques, even though they express themselves in French or Spanish. And there are Basques who are Basque citizens because they reside in the Basque Country and love the Basque Country. In the Autonomous Community of Navarra, which is founded on a long and brilliant history of its own, it is another story: there are Basques who feel Basque and many Navarrese who are not and do not feel Basque.
What the Basque Government does to defend the Basque language seems to me to be quite successful, despite all the cartoonish and meaningless actions that have been taken against the Castilian language or – better said – Spanish, which is one of the two or three most widely spoken languages in the world. We already know that language is not enough. In addition to this, it should not be hidden, the results of the policies in favor of the Basque language are rather negligent. The reality is that there is no nation or country possible without a historical legacy, combined with consent and a will to exist on the part of the people. Nicolas Berdiaev and other famous European authors such as Ortega y Gasset spoke of unity or community of historical destiny. Well, without the harmonious combination of the historical-cultural foundation and the voluntarist or consensual factor, without these two factors, there can be no nation. And that is why there is no longer a true Spanish nation today, as there are no true nationalities or small nations within Spain today.
The same can be said of the rest of Western Europe, whose power is in clear decline, if we compare it to the current great powers. In France, it is very significant that a professional politician like Manuel Valls, who always believes he has an ace up his sleeve, has recently admitted that “French society is gangrenous, fractured by Islamism.” For this very reason, the Catalan authorities and Catalanists, who emphatically declare or hypocritically imply that they prefer North African immigration that does not speak Spanish, considering it more prone to learning Catalan, than a Catholic and Spanish-speaking Spanish-American immigration, are ignorant and incoherent. With them the days of fet Catala are numbered. At least, and for the moment, the immigrationist nonsense of the Catalanists does not seem to prevail so strongly among the radical Basque nationalist militants.
LT: How would you define the Navarrese feeling of identity?
AI: I think I have already answered in part. For me, Navarrismo is in the past; its hallmarks were Catholicism and traditionalism. It was the same as the Requetés, the red berets that my maternal grandfather admired so much and that today only exist in homeopathic doses. I would say the same about the figure of the noble, catholic, deep-rooted, hard-working and honest Basque of yesteryear.
It seems that the “elites,” the Basque and Navarrese oligarchy or political caste have chosen, I do not know if definitively or not, the path of harmonization and alignment with the values and presuppositions of globalism or alter-globalism (which does not matter), or of the so-called progressive transnationalism. They pretend to believe that the Basque and the Navarrese are defined only administratively or legally from a document or an identity card. It seems that they are eager to populate the future Basque and Navarrese territories with the homo economicus, asexual, stateless and phantasmagoric, so criticized in the past by the Basque-Spanish Unamuno, and by the most important figures of Basque nationalism.
If to this we add the ravages of the terrible demographic crisis, undoubtedly the worst in all of Spain and possibly in all of Western Europe, the prospects are not very encouraging. And, all the while, young Basques listen to Anglo-Saxon music, play “Basque rock,” eat hamburgers, consume drugs (young Abertzales more than anyone else), demand the opening of borders, immigration without limits, aggressive secularism, gender theory, transhumanism, hatred of the state and the history of the Spanish nation, and all the bullshit imported from American campuses. I could just say in French or English: “Grand bien leur fasse /Best of luck to them.” But I have the intimate and terrible conviction that if there is not a quick reaction against them, they will bring us a bleak, raw and bloody future in which our descendants will suffer.
LT: What do you think of Stanley Payne’s statement in the Prologue to your book, pointing out that “The Basque Country is the most unique region in Spain?” What are your feelings towards the Basque Country and towards Navarre?
AI: Stanley Payne belongs to that tradition of Anglo-Saxon historians who almost never lose their cool, or they say things with a certain degree of caution and balanced composure. He is a researcher and historian; but he is also a man and not a robot. That is why he opines, judges and interprets, although always with a certain sobriety and consideration. In the Prologue, he refers to the uniqueness of the Basque language, institutions and history (ignoring ethnicity). Now, he is American. I am not. And if I say that I agree with him when he says that “the Basque Country is the most unique region in Spain” many will say that this is due to my personal preference. Precisely as a result of that Prologue by Payne, a friend of mine, not without a sense of humor, wrote me: “This is very good, although I think that Galicians are more particular than Basques.”
In the book Vascos y Navarros I have tried to be as rigorous, honest and disinterested as possible. I have always thought that true objectivity does not lie so much in a hostile withdrawal, as in a kind of well-intentioned will that is capable of understanding and explaining the ideas of others without giving up one’s own reasons. That said, let me say and repeat here that, despite recent evolutions or regressions and the shortcomings of the pseudo or self-proclaimed Basque-Navarrese political “elites,” the Basque Country and Navarre are my favorite lands.
LT: How do you see the recent history of the Basque Country and Spain from the point-of-view of the French Basque Country?
AI: Partisanship, ignorance or disinterest, not only of the majority of the French but also of the majority of French politicians and journalists, for the history and politics of the Basque Country and Navarre, and more generally for Spain in its entirety – is abysmal, unfathomable. The trend is slightly different in the French Basque Country due to the proximity of the border and the presence of a weak but not insignificant Basque nationalist electorate, representing 10% to 12% of the general electorate. Generally, many feel Basque, but as in the rest of France, most are disinterested in the history and politics of the peninsula, unless a momentous event occurs. As for the small Basque nationalist minority in the north, they tirelessly recycle Hispanophobic clichés, although they sometimes fear being swallowed up by their powerful brothers to the south.
In my case, I have not surrendered. With the help of a handful of young and veteran French historians and courageous editorials, I continue and will continue to explain, denounce and refute black legends, misconceptions, censored data, instrumentalized facts and Hispanophobic nonsense, spread by the ignorant, the wicked and, unfortunately, by a good part of the Basque, Navarrese and Spanish political caste.
The image shows, “Landscape Of The Basque Country,” by Charles Lacoste, painted in 1925.