The complete lockdown of my country, in March to May 2020, was a good opportunity to sit down and think about its political and institutional condition, a topic that particularly worries me ever since the Yellow Vest riots at the end of 2018, when I, and a lot of my fellow countrymen, felt the regime of the Fifth Republic falter. From that moment, the possibility of the collapse of the regime obsessed me, along with my previous thoughts on the real nature of the Fifth Republic as political regime. I tried to figure out what is to be expected in the coming months and years in my country, using my usual method of historic comparative analysis.
Here’s why I think that the French Fifth Republic is not a democracy, but a new Ancien Régime, and will therefore be destroyed by a new Revolution. And this is how it will happen.
A New Ancien Régime
The first thing to say is that France is not a democracy, and that’s true from the very beginning of the Fifth Republic, in 1958, and has only worsened since.
Usually in France, we think that our Constitution implements a possible form of democracy, one of the many different sorts existing in the West, and showing only a few constitutional and institutional variations from these; and that the others differ amongst each other in the same way and range, and that they together thus draw a spectrum of possibilities in the political realm called, “democracy,” which constitutes the enlightened form of government in the modern West. That’s completely wrong. All our European neighbor-states have identical constitutions and rules about some crucial points, while France shows a radical singularity. Thus, France is not another democracy among others; it’s the exception to the rule. All great democracies in Europe (United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Spain), are parliamentary democracies, where head of state and head of government are clearly separated, and the Government is accountable to parliament. It’s also the case in India, in Japan, Canada, and Australia. It was also the case under the French Third Republic. It’s not the case in France today.
The separation of power is not even strictly implemented, as in the American constitution, in which the President is both head of state and government, but the Congress is independent from him. France has a so-called “semi-presidential system,” in common with countries like Russia, Syria, Algeria or Egypt, which are not democracies at all. France is not a “democracy” in the usual sense of this word. But nor is it a dictatorship – France under King Louis XVI was not a dictatorship, neither was Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II. France is an exception, an intruder in the democratic world. There is no balance between powers. The President isn’t accountable before anyone, as long as his term lasts; but he has the power to dissolve the Parliament. The presidential function is a sort of political gravity pit – as time passes, everything ends up depending on it.
In a society, political mores and institutions form a feedback loop. When the Fifth Republic was founded, democratic culture in France had been well established for more than eighty years. The “Republican monarchy,” as the French constitutionalist, Maurice Duverger, called it, gradually altered and erased this democratic habitus – court manners now came to rule the political world and the media, the arts and the economy. The French political ecosystem today matches the institutions of the Fifth Republic, that is to say, we are now culturally this “Republican monarchy,” which we were previously, in the 1960s and the 1970s, only formally. Among our neighbors, the seat of political power is the Parliament. In France, it’s the Elysée palace, the presidential residence – and it’s just not the main seat, but the only one. There’s no debate there; everything is decided in the backrooms, and the French people only hear some rumors in the press about why and how important decisions are made.
This return to a pre-democratic political culture, as in the Ancien Régime or the German Empire in the 1900s, has had a spectacular outcome – missing real democratic debate, the French people show their discontent with riots, such as the Yellow Vest movement.
Here, I should reiterate what I said in my last book, La Structure de l’Histoire (The Structure of History) – that the parliamentary Nation-State is the result of a long deterministic process. First, a feudal society evolves towards centralized monarchy through the growing power of the feudal king, and the creation of a representative assembly made up of different parts of the feudal system (English Model Parliament in 1295, French Estates General in 1302). The last stage of the process towards national parliamentarism is what I call a “national revolution.” a revolutionary cycle which transform a regime of centralized monarchy into a parliamentary regime, an autocratic power into a democratic-representative power. This stage lasts approximately forty to fifty years, as in the two English revolutions (1641-1689), the French Revolution and the July Revolution (1789-1830), or the Spanish revolution and Spanish transition to democracy (1931-1977). The scheme is always the same: Fall of the old regime, an attempt to establish a moderate new regime, economic collapse and the rise of the radical revolutionaries, civil war and military dictatorship, authoritarian regime, then finally an “easygoing” revolutionary episode.
In my previous book, Atlas des guerres à venir (Atlas of the Wars to Come), I also described the historical phenomenon which I termed, “avenger-imperialist,” or “revolutionary imperialist,” a nationalist dictator. who simultaneously is a product of a “national revolution,” who seeks to end this revolution by way of a synthetic new order by amalgamating revolutionary democracy with the autocracy of the old regime; and seeks to insure the domination of his people by what he sees as “natural borders.” Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin or even Mussolini or Francisco Franco are such figures. So here’s the point: If the deterministic historical process dictates a one-way evolution towards a parliamentary nation-state, a reality we observe in every great European state, how is it that France has regressed to a sort of new Ancien Régime in the middle of the twentieth century? It can’t be because of any sort of advancement that France had made, in comparison to its neighbors, since the United Kingdom is its elder in the fulfilment of this historical path and is still ruled under the same parliamentary system we find in Germany, Spain or Italy, which all accomplished their national revolutions later than France.
The answer, in fact, is to be found in Russia. This country is remarkable for having passed through two national revolutions in a row during the twentieth century; first in 1917, then in 1991, which is ongoing (in which Putin is a new avenger-imperialist; but that’s another topic).
How is such a thing possible? Because the first Russian revolution took place at the same time as the German revolution (1918), and the Russian and German revolutionary-imperialists, Stalin and Hitler, crashed into each other. Normally, a revolutionary imperialist expends the power of his country, unites against him all the neighboring countries, and is finally crushed by their coalition, and his defeat finally establishes the borders of his country by terminating its imperialists ambitions. The typical case is Napoleonic France. Hitler’s Germany also matched this scheme, because Hitler was, as Napoleon, the aggressor, and created the unity of the nations against him.
But Stalin, who was on the same trajectory, was attacked by Hitler before he himself could attack Germany. Thenceforth he was not an aggressor, but a defender of the Russian homeland, in what is known in Russia as the “Great Patriotic War,” which legitimized the Communist regime internationally, making USSR one of the Allies against Hitler, and internally, where the Communist regime become the savior of the motherland.
This historical accident derailed the Russian trajectory, changing the revolutionary – and as such, temporary – Soviet regime into a new “old regime,” which is to say, a regime strongly accepted by the people, not only by the means of terror but because of its great prestige, its authority which faced no serious questioning, and propped by national pride because of its imperial capacity. Such had been the case of France in the 18th-century, right after the numerous conquests of Louis XIV and the victory in the war of the Spanish Succession; it had been the case in Germany, united under Prussian rule, after the victory against France in 1871; it had been the case of Russia after a series of wars that took place in the second half of the 19th-century, which had resulted, in the extreme extent, in the Russian Empire in Europe, against the Ottomans. That is why the Soviet regime, in 1991, collapsed, as all “Ancien Régimes” are supposed to, that is to say, by a national revolution.
This brief look at the Russian case proves that in some cases, a temporary structural backward trajectory can be observed, a one-off regression from the historical path.
And it’s precisely this kind of historical accident which is the cause of France’s current institutional problem. In France, the historical accident is the defeat in 1940. No other European country had to face such an upheaval so late in its national historical path, after becoming a parliamentary nation-state. In fact, at this time, only two great European countries had reached this stage of evolution: United Kingdom and France. The defeat provoked the collapse of the French democratic regime of the Third Republic, and the establishment of an authoritarian regime for a few years with Vichy France, and which opened a new revolutionary phase. It must be noted, indeed, that a national revolution always starts with a painful episode that discredits the previous regime, destroys its authority and plunges the population into disarray. Such was the case of the humiliating defeat of France in the Seven Years’ War, which cost the monarchy the people’s trust, inspiring a predictive resentful song, Comprenez-vous? (Do you understand?), attributed to Voltaire: “When we’ll be out of tears/ When we’ll be exasperated / We’ll know well to who, Madam / We’ll have to bend our neck / Do you understand?”
It was, similarly the case of Russian and German defeats in the First World War, ending the Russian and German Empires with revolutions. And we saw again the same scheme when the USSR, humiliated by defeat in Afghanistan, and with its incapacity to match Reagan’s IDS, along with the Chernobyl disaster, collapsed in 1991.
Such catastrophic defeat leads to an all-round questioning of values and the ruling system, and generates a collective impulse towards a new political model, through a national revolution. Thus began a new revolutionary phase, in France, including its radicals (Communists) and its synthetic dictator, an avenger-imperialist – General Charles de Gaulle, who was often called a Bonapartist, unsurprisingly. Of course, this national revolution was less violent and its consequences lower than the first occurrence, but it seems that it’s always so with such an accidental repetition of a national revolution – in the same way, the collapse of USSR was much less bloody than the Revolution of 1917, and Putin is not Stalin.
In fact, it was not the first time France has gone through a throw-back and new national revolution. As a matter of fact, France went through three national revolutions: The first started in 1789, the third in 1940, and the second in 1870, after the humiliating defeat against Prussia. Then, France suffered the Paris Commune, then an aborted avenger-imperialist with general Boulanger, who never took power, allowing democracy to be established quickly.
But de Gaulle failed to establish the regime he wanted in 1946 – the Fourth Republic was in fact a restoration of the Third. And the Fifth Republic is the product of a coup, which was its original sin. De Gaulle came back to power with a putsch – or under the threat of a putsch, which is the same thing. The Constitution wasn’t written by an Assembly elected for that, which is the normal way to adopt a constitution in the democratic tradition, but by a man – Michel Debré – on behalf of another – de Gaulle – and then offered to the people by way of a referendum. So, there it is: The French Fifth Republic was set up by an avenger-imperialist.
As well, this regime wasn’t contested afterwards, and it came to accentuate its vices through the many successive amendments to the Constitution. That’s how, like the Soviets in the 1980s, we again have today, in France, a new pre-national revolution regime, a new Ancien Régime: a non-democracy, marked by all the vices of this kind of aging system – very little social mobility, very much depending on the State and its apparatus, and diminishing freedom of speech.
A New Revolution
With that being said, where are we headed? The answer is quite obvious: A new national revolution. It’s the way defined by the determinism I explained earlier; and even when an accidental regression occurs on the path to historical determinism, a country continues moving forward, as Russia did after 1945. And this implies that it follows the same determinism.
What is the first stage of a national revolution, the trigger of the regime’s collapse? A humiliating event that seriously undermines its authority, especially one which questions its core-legitimacy and is the institution that is the main pillar of its supremacy. In the 2020 France of the Fifth Republic, the most cited pillar of the State’s legitimacy is the so called “modèle social français” (the French social model), which is based on a very powerful welfare-state and the promise of an unrivaled healthcare, brought about by the largest investment of the European Union in this sector – 11.3 % of the GDP.
In dealing with Covid-19, France obviously did much worse than Germany, and not much better than Spain or Italy – whose healthcare systems where described in the mainstream French media up until March 2020 as less professional and less efficient. France still had a worse mortality rate per million inhabitants than the United States or Brazil, despite the efforts of the French media to hide this reality, by speaking only about the total number of deaths.
No tests, no masks. In the weeks following, this important information the French government could not hide, and it had a disastrous effect on the population’s morale, like going to war with too few guns and missing ammunition. Perhaps it’s understandable, though annoying, that an “average” country is not ready to face a pandemic. But it’s a humiliation, in a country which prides itself on its healthcare, to appear so helpless. Especially at a time when the authority of the State is already low and lacks legitimacy, just a year after the Yellow Vest crisis, in which the regime already seemed on the verge of collapse.
In addition, the French economy will be one of the most affected by the consequences of the coronavirus – experts expect GDP to drop by more than 10 %, and a million French workers will probably lose their jobs within a year. A ten-fold Yellow Vest crisis is expected to come about.
What Will This New National Revolution Look Like?
Historionomy can help us to draw a sort of cone of possibilities. Here’s the method: We have to re-examine the cases of national revolutions and avenger-imperialists in French History (Revolutionary and Imperial France, the Paris Commune and the Boulangist crisis, the defeat of 1940, and the de Gaulle presidency) in order to figure out the main common stages and the variables causing the variance between the different cases. Then we will be able to compare this model with other main cases mentioned previously (the German revolution of 1918 and the Third Reich; the Russian revolutions of 1917 and 1991) to ensure its reliability. Then we will use this model to predict how the political and institutional situation in France could evolve in the next years.
Here’s the table summarizing the French case:
It is to be noted that the Revolution-Empire cycle lasted 26 years (1788-1815), the Paris Commune-Boulangist crisis cycle lasted 19 years (but it was aborted), and the 1940 defeat-de Gaulle presidency lasted 29 years (1940-1969).
Here’s the table summarizing the Russian case:
And, lastly, here’s the table summarizing the German case:
Before trying to figure out the future of the French Republic, a few remarks must first be made.
The French Revolution-Empire case, the first Russian case and the German case are about a first national revolution, not a replica, and show a greater degree of revolutionary fervor, with much more violent consequences concerning the number of victims and geopolitical upheaval. Replicas, in France as in Russia, despite a similar path, show a much less tragic outcome on these points, probably because ideology was less influential: Jacobinism, Bolshevism, Nazism were very powerful ideologies. Nothing like these is visible in the other cases.
Besides, there are two factors that are quite new and could affect the development of the scheme. On one hand, the ethnic situation of the country, after half a century of mass immigration that led to the appearance of large ethnic and religious minorities, especially Muslims from North and Sub-Saharan Africa. Therefore, the regime collapse could degenerate towards a 1990s Yugoslavia-like scenario, with episodes of racial war and ethnic cleansing.
On the other hand, France is now a province of the American Empire, belonging to NATO, and its stability is of strategic concern for Washington. One could wonder how America would react to a collapse of the French Fifth Republic: Would it let the revolution go its way in a “wait-and-see” posture, or intervene immediately to ensure the stability of Europe? In case of a plunge into the chaos of an interethnic conflict, will America act like it did against the Serbs in the Bosnian War, or accuse the French people of genocide, if the conflict results in the expulsion of some populations recently immigrated?
These are questions I did not incorporate in my projection, because the model says nothing about them, but it must be said that they can, at any stage, influence the chain of events.
That being said, here is the projection resulting from the application of our model:
Grégoire Canlorbe (GC): You have never hesitated to challenge the usual discourse, which liberals (libertarians, classical-liberals, anarcho-capitalists, free-marketists) have never shunned, even the most conservative among them, by claiming France to be an artificial construction, from its establishment to becoming a unifying state – it is a political work, whose foundation is no more geography than ethnicity or blood. Far from having formed differently from other European nations, France has, according to you, been built around an ethnic and territorial reality, and globally follows the same trajectory in its history. Could you elaborate on that subject?
Philippe Fabry (PF): Yes, it is indeed a common place in the commentary on the history of France to say that it was the state which made the nation; while among our neighbors it would be the nation which made the state. I cannot say if historians believe it, because it is just not the kind of questions that they ask themselves these days. But it is the kind of ready-made thinking that is prized by journalists and politicians who pride themselves on diagnosing the “French trouble.” But, in truth, that dichotomy opposing France to the rest of Europe, if not the world, is fallacious, in two respects. First, all nation-states are constituted according to a standard model (in reality two models, with France using the most frequent one; I will come back to this), where the state does not have a more determinant role than territorial and ethnic factors.
There are two models for the emergence of nation-states. The most common model, the most immediate, primary one, is that of the long-term gathering – around six centuries – of territories and people under one single state authority. The other model is the one that I would call, “secondary,” with the nation-states born by secession, during an independence revolution: That is the case of Rome vis-à-vis the Etruscans; the separated United Provinces, formerly Spanish possessions; and the United States of America. These are formed when a population, geographically and culturally too distant from the state base of a “primary” nation-state, is yet under its control for various reasons.
France belongs, like all major European states, to the first category. The model is as follows. In a populated territorial area, more or less ethnically and linguistically homogeneous, but where there is no state, either because none has ever emerged (for example, Germania of the early Middle Ages), or because it is a former imperial state that has withdrawn (such as, Gaul during Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, or Britain after the ebb of the Danes in the 10th-century). The primitive regime is feudalism and therefore extreme political fragmentation.
In the absence of a large-scale exogenous event, generally the invasion by an imperial power, a feudal lord more powerful than the others appears over time, who is logically the one who controls the economic dynamics of the territorial area. This economic dynamic, say, a fertile agricultural region, is very easily identified by looking at a relief map: It is a large plain, the largest in the territorial area.
For example, the Paris Basin in France, the North German Plain for Germany, the Guadalquivir Plain for Spain, the London Basin for Britain. The seigniorial power which relies on this economic dynamic has a decisive advantage in resources and can extend over all the space that is naturally peripheral to it; that is to say, both culturally close, and belonging to a geographically well-defined territorial area: The whole of Gaul for the Paris Basin, including the Breton peninsula; the Massif Central and the smaller plains of Aquitaine and Languedoc; the entire island of Britain for the London Basin, winning over Cornwall, and hilly Wales and Scotland; all of southern Germany for the northern plain, including mountainous Bavaria.
Of course, these centers of power do not stop at sharp boundaries, which for centuries have engendered conflicts over the exact boundaries of the areas of influence. Such conflict zones are generally distinguished by a hybrid character, allowing them to be associated with several groups. Thus, from an ethnic point of view, Britain may be linked to France by way of England, language linked Alsace to Germany, while the largest geographic area of the Paris Basin made it lean towards France, and so on. It is rare that a border so clearly separates two territorial areas that it is never challenged; but we can say that this was the case of the Pyrenees between France and Spain – thus, Roussillon, close to Catalan culture, did not become French until the 18th-century.
In effect, dominant seigniorial power then builds the state, first by going beyond the feudal system and creating an assembly, representative of the orders: Urban bourgeoisie, nobility, clergy, to which the peasantry is added in the Nordic countries. Such assembly allows the dominant seigniorial power to give itself a higher stature than that of the rest of the nobility and to embody the first national representation.
This new paradigm leads to the construction of an administration, which exercises regalian functions, more and more uniformly throughout the controlled territory. The population gathered under said authority gradually becomes a political community, becomes culturally uniform, and develops a national feeling. And it is when this national feeling is sufficiently present, and when some event occurs – say, a lost war which discredits the regime, that is, the “administrative monarchy” – then, what I call a movement of national revolution comes about, which is the final stage in the constitution of a nation-state, thus making the nation the true holder of sovereignty, and therefore of the power of the state, through a parliamentary regime. That revolutionary movement lasts about forty years and goes through various systematic stages: Collapse of the regime, radicalization of the revolutionary phenomenon, military dictatorship, partial restoration of the old regime, and final parliamentary change.
So it is always the state which makes the nation; but at the same time the nation which arouses the state. The geographic expansion of the state is constrained by cultural, demographic, linguistic and obviously purely geographic factors, but its emergence and consolidation are themselves the product of an ethno-geographic reality. It is a kind of feedback loop, and it is rare that a state absolutely corresponds to its natural ethnico-geographical zone: The competition of large states creates disputed zones, which are often resolved, either through an arbitrary delimitation, or through fragmentation and the appearance of multi-ethnic, multicultural, plurilingual buffer states like Belgium or Switzerland – which may end up developing their own identity, certainly, but one more accidental.
This determinism is not absolute and leaves the possibility of several combinations; but it is clear that it is the most “obvious” one which generally triumphs. Thus, in France, two nations could have been born, because there are two basins: The Parisian and the Aquitanian. For a long time, Bordeaux was the capital of that Aquitaine Basin, and Aquitaine dominated the country of Oc; while the country of Oïl depended more naturally on Paris.
The distinction between the two countries could have endured, since each had a certain linguistic and cultural unity: The language of Oc against the language of Oïl, a country of written law against a country of customary law. But first the Parisian Basin is much larger than the Bordeaux Basin, and second the “natural” territorial area was rather on the scale of the whole of the former territory of Gaul, whose settlement base had largely remained the same as during antiquity (the Great Migrations did not constitute a real demographic break). The Paris Basin therefore succeeded in its calling to dominate the whole, which has created France.
Another example. Germany saw the development of two centers capable of unifying the German nation: Austria and Prussia. Prussia controlled the plain of North Germany, and Austria dominated the plain of Pannonia (Hungary). That resulted in a division of the Germanic space between the two centers until the Great War, and ultimately the impossibility of keeping them lastingly unified after the failure of the Third Reich – even though the Germany of the seven electors, appointed by the Golden Bull of 1356, covered all of those German-speaking territories.
I think political debate would gain a lot, if these invariants of the state and national construction are better known, because they say a lot about what can or cannot be a nation-state, and about the deleterious effects that, for example, a constituted mass immigration can have on a nation-state.
And as for liberals (libertarians, from classical-liberals to anarcho-capitalists), there is a remark that I like to make to them, and that they generally take badly, and it is this – that if the nation-state is built in such a systematic way, it is because it is the most efficient product on the public security market, so that if we were to recreate an anarchic society, in the long term, it would be towards the re-emergence of nation-states that the political and social order would tend.
GC: While Greco-Roman paganism (on that point, in phase with Judaism) breaks away from the veneration of Mother Nature (the pre-Indo-European gynecocratic spirit), the biblical conception of time as linear (and of cosmic and human history as endowed with a beginning, an end, and a progression) contrasts with the pagan motif of the eternal return of the same. You assert both your Catholic heritage and your cyclical conception of history. How is that duality reconciled within your intellectual life?
PF: It always seemed natural to me, faced with that kind of conceptual opposition, to think that the truth was more likely to be a mixture of the two. Cyclicity and linearity are not necessarily contradictory, if we consider that there are several scales to consider, several temporalities. And it seems obvious to me that the story is both cyclical and linear, which is not only proper to human history, but also to natural history.
Take the evolution of species: It is linear; there is no turning back. But it is based on a cyclical phenomenon, which is the life of living individuals: Their conception, their birth, their maturation, their reproduction, their death. It is through that recurrence that nature, through mutations, which are then selected naturally, makes species evolve.
The same goes for humanity: It is subject to certain recurrences; but those recurrences end up drawing a linear pattern and a general progression – in the demographic mass of the species, the size of its political communities, its scientific and technical power, its artistic sophistication. Its destiny is linear; but its embodiment is recursive – which led me to suggest, and my work always leads me further in that direction, that human history can be modeled in the mathematical form of a cellular automaton, which is also a tool for modeling the appearance and development of life.
And I must also note that this double cyclical and linear conception places me in a situation which is a sort of mise en abîme: I thus notice, within the framework of the parallel that I draw between the history of modern Europe and that of ancient Greece, that the study of history itself goes through three great stages, more and more intellectually sophisticated.
First, there are the chroniclers, who are interested in events and great characters and who produce fairly simple narratives. That is the case of the Greeks before Herodotus, with the poems of Homer, in particular, and medieval chroniclers like Einhard or Gregory of Tours.
Second, there are the historians more curious about fundamental movements, like Thucydides or Voltaire, who analyze the economic and social foundations of history.
And, third, there are those who seek in history the recurrences, the laws, like Polybius (with his theory of anacyclosis), or Plutarch (with his Parallel Lives) in antiquity; and in modern times, Marx, Spengler, Braudel, Toynbee. It is in that last vein that my work falls; and I find it amusing, working on historical cyclicity, to note that those works themselves obey that cyclicity, that I am the logical product of my time. Feeling oneself to be the product of a certain determinism, when one studies precisely the role of determinism, is both very stimulating and the cause of a certain perplexity.
And it also makes you humble, which is precisely one of the fundamental values of the Christian faith. And since the cyclicity of life is not incompatible with that faith, the Church having besides recognized that evolution is “more than a theory;” there is no reason to think that it must be different for the evolution of human societies. On the contrary, it reinforces the idea of the cosmic order, which, assuredly, is a concept as much prized by the ancient Greeks in their cyclical vision as by Christians in their linear vision.
GC: Applying the historionomic approach to the dynamism of political ideas, you present the Right and the Left, not as categories of an alternative, which dates back to the French Revolution, but as a pair of opposites, which crosses all societies and all ages. In that context, you make your own that distinction by historian Fabrice Bouthillon between two forms of centrism: Centrism through the addition of extremes on the chessboard of opinion, versus centrism through the exclusion of those extremes. What does historionomy, armed with such a framework, teach us?
PF: My work on this divide, which I am, in fact, taking up and systematizing into a book, allows me to deepen certain questions dealt with in The Structure of History, which was mainly devoted to the research of the underlying laws of history, likely to explain in particular the models of the nation-state’s construction of which I spoke earlier.
One of the most interesting observations about those models is that not only is the same pattern observable in all major countries, but it takes place over an almost identical duration and at a similar rate – that is to say that within that overall duration, the major phases also always have a similar duration. So, it has something to do with the passing of generations and the circulation of ideas. However, it is precisely this aspect that the study of the issue of the divide provides some clarification: The ideas slide from Left to Right because these two camps bring together the population respectively favorable to change or conservation of an established order.
Since the established order slowly evolves, after a generation the one that the conservatives of the previous generation defended has largely disappeared, while the progressives of the previous generation have become for the most part conservative because the order now established is the one they wanted. The former conservatives are now becoming reactionary, that is to say supporters of the old order, and we are seeing new, more extreme ideas of change appear on the far Left, in the revolutionary fringe.
But reactionaries and revolutionaries have this in common – they are anti-conformists, that is to say, they consider the established order as illegitimate, while the conservatives and the progressives, that is to say the Right and the moderate Left, are conformists, and consider the established order as legitimate.
Most of the time, it is the Right-Left divide which governs political life: Conservatives join forces with reactionaries, and progressives with revolutionaries, to obtain majorities and govern. But in times of crises, there is often a conformist/anti-conformist tension, where those most moderate among the two sides join forces to defend the system in place, while those extreme among both sides find themselves together in the opposition to that order.
There are multiple examples of this: The banking crisis of the 1880s, but also the French referendum on the European Constitution in 2005, or the crisis of the Yellow Vests, for whom the power in place very quickly spoke of “red-browns.” One can also cite the Lega and Five Stars Movementcoalition in Italy, which temporarily succeeded in seizing power from moderates, without ever really being able to get along in the exercise of power, since the two groups had opposite views on numerous topics.
Usually, centrism through the addition of extremes only succeeds in taking power, if a charismatic or skillful figure embodies it and is able to arbitrate between the two sides. That is the case with many great dictators in recent history: Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler. Often, moreover, the analysis of their policy reveals numerous about-faces and a certain ideological flexibility, without which they would not be able to maintain themselves.
Such an analytical grid allows, in particular, to better understand the way things happen during revolutionary periods, which quickly see the two divides alternate – but also to apprehend political developments over time, to understand by example that royalty in France was “on the Left” roughly until Henry IV, and was conservative during the last two centuries of its existence. It makes it possible to understand that there is in reality a great historical continuity, that the French Revolution did not at all make a Right-Left divide suddenly “appear,” which would not have existed before. And it also makes it possible to better model, as I said, the construction of the nation-state, since it is through such circulation of ideas, the effects on society, of the reforms it initiates that the political integration of the nation is brought about.
Indeed, the national construction largely consists of the progressive extension of the political body to the whole of the population. First, the political body of feudal society is composed only of the barons. Then it integrates the bourgeoisie of cities, then the peasantry, then the religious minorities (Protestants, Jews), then the workers, then the women – and today the immigrants. And, at all times, the main objective of the Left bloc is to integrate into the political body the class which is the most powerful among those who are still excluded from it. It is often said, too quickly, that the Left is the camp of equality.
This is both true and false. It is true because, indeed, the heart of the discourse on the Left is always to want to grant equality to a category of population which is excluded from the game. But it is also false, because at the moment, only the ambition of one category counts and the others only serve as foils – yesterday, women only served as foils for the workers’ movement; today sexual minorities, transgenders, and so on, alone serve as foils for the only truly powerful minority, that of non-European immigrants. And that is why the far Left never says a word about the persecution of sexual minorities by those very populations.
As long as the “priority” category is not integrated into the political body, the claims of other minorities are heard only if they are compatible with its own. And once that category is effectively integrated, it in turn becomes conservative and opposes extending rights to the next. To use a famous phrase, “the last to enter closes the door.” And the next must force it open, in turn.
But in nation-states which categorically refuse immigration, for example, that phenomenon cannot continue, since there is no new class of population to integrate. That is the case, I think, with Japan, which is a country very hostile to any immigration and that, in fact, has practically had no far Left for fifty years, because there is no longer anyone to integrate into the political body.
In Europe, on the contrary, we have been for fifty years bringing to light a new class of the excluded – by importing it: This is the non-European, African and/or Muslim immigration. As such, it will become, and is already in the process of doing so, the class whose claims will be hegemonic on the Left. In the next twenty years, we will probably have an Indigenist/Islamist party which will win 20% of the vote. And the order in place should progressively integrate a certain number of values and realize a certain number of demands of those populations, as one did for working-class populations throughout the 20th-century, by establishing not exactly what they demanded at the beginning of the century, communism, but a compromise with the old order, which is our current order: Social democracy.
GC: Presenting Rome and America as twin civilizations, separated by an ocean of centuries, you foresee for the latter a trajectory similar to the fate of the first. Could you elaborate what justifies the establishment of such a comparison – instead of a parallel, for example, between multi-ethnic America and the fragmented Hellenistic empire of Alexander the Great? As concerns the equivalent of Carthage among the enemies of America, do you rather think of Russia, Turkey, or China to play that role?
PF: The comparison between America and Ptolemaic Egypt is actually made by David Cosandey, in his remarkable book,Le Secret de l’Occident (The Secret of the West), where he develops fundamental concepts that I am currently taking up in ongoing works, as they provide practically turnkey explanations that I only groped at before reading this book.
These are the concepts of articulated thalassography, that is to say, the relationship between a geographical area and the length of its coasts – the lower it is, the more the coasts are important compared to the geographical surface, the more that area will be favorable to the development of an intense maritime trade. And, on the other hand, the concept of mereuporia, which designates the stable and lasting political division, which is indirectly linked to the thalassography articulated in the sense that an area with very long coasts often goes hand-in-hand with a multitude of peninsulas and a quite jagged coastline, which form many natural borders and thus favor the emergence of national isolates.
Cosandey thus explains, by geography, the parallel that I have detailed elsewhere between ancient Greece and modern Europe. In the context of the contemporary world, one notices that it is the place with the most articulated thalassography, which has favored, more than elsewhere, both the emergence of nation-states (among the Greeks, city-states) thanks to borders relatively stable over time (as per the model that I outlined above), and on the other hand, a strong development of trade between those bordered communities. And that all of Asia, while devastated for long periods by Mongol invasions that considerably hampered the political development of this region, also had less access to maritime trade and its decisive advantages in terms of transport costs.
As well, one notes that the Mongol invasions of Europe, then the Turkish ones, stopped precisely at the border of Europe with a jagged geography, that is to say, between Vienna and the Carpathians – beyond, are the great plains, open to the four winds, the steppes, where it is very difficult to establish sustainable borders.
Yet Cosandey, who already mentioned the parallel between ancient Greece and modern Europe, noted that after the domination of both, power had passed to larger entities, and on that occasion compares the Seleucid Empire, Eastern and Continental, with Russia, and the Egypt of the Ptolemies with the United States of America. But if the parallel holds for the change of scale, the analogy does not hold in my opinion.
Indeed, what brings the United States of America and Rome together, besides the role of a maritime power dominating the known world, is the internal political order and its history. These are two nations born of an independence revolution: In Rome, it was the Latins who hunted Etruscan kings (even Greco-Etruscans, since one of the ancestors of the kings of Rome was Demaratus, a nobleman from Corinth who immigrated to Italy), while the United States broke away from the British crown due to distance, and the length of time since the first waves of immigration, as well as the mix with populations of Dutch origin, who did not feel much attachment to English kings.
The nations which are the product of an independentist revolution always have a legal-political system that emphasizes the political community and the rights of the citizen; and this is particularly marked in Rome, as in the United States which, once independent, quickly set up a political system whose main concern was the control of power, the rejection of the monarchy, and the guarantee of the rights of the people. In both cases this produced a constitutional system that tended to be more rough-hewn than a highly intellectualized system, but one that was extremely solid and durable.
And it was this political system which allowed progressive growth over a large area, through federation – the Roman domination over Italy was of such a nature – and the development of an imperial republican culture, which is of something other than the search for power of a dynasty. Rome, like the United States, was a liberal [libertarian] superpower, which could go to war when it encountered resistance, but after victory sought a lasting and profitable organization – for example, during the liberation of Greece from the Macedonian occupation. And above all, Rome also exported a model of society, which was precisely that of its law, of municipal organization, all things likely to seduce the elites, even the middle classes of the allied or defeated countries – and which one also finds in the American mode of domination.
All these things, the product of the internal political evolution in Rome, as in the United States, did not exist in the Hellenistic kingdoms, which resembled rather the autocracy of the Tsars of Russia until the beginning of the 20th-century. And besides, in fact, the good ancient parallel for Russia is Macedonia, that state on the borders of Greece, not really Greek but not really barbaric either, which established its domination over a large number of Greek cities after they had bled themselves in internal conflicts, in particular the Peloponnesian War, and whose government was despotic, unlike the Greek cities in which the oligarcho-democratic model had spread widely.
The multiethnic aspect, in Rome as in the United States, is a late phenomenon, the consequence of the constitution of a world empire which then drains a population coming from the four corners of the world, and which brings about a cosmopolitan evolution of the imperial core. That has little to do, conversely, with the Hellenistic kingdoms which, in fact, were actually Greek colonies, where the elites descended from the Greek and Macedonian invaders, and spoke Greek, but where the background of the population was indigenous: Persian, Egyptian, and so on.
As for Carthage, everything depends exactly on the role attributed to it. There is not necessarily an exact parallel. One might be tempted to see Russia there, in its Soviet and then current form. But, as I said, Russia corresponds much more literally to Macedonia. Certainly, Macedonia was Carthage’s ally against Rome during the Second Punic War, and Rome definitively got rid of those two enemies in two simultaneous wars in 146 BC, but Russia never exactly had the same role as Carthage, which was rather the western enemy of Rome, the one which it faced far away from the ancient world, the world that counted, the Hellenistic world – the one which it seized control of, before turning to the most important half of that world, so to speak.
On that level, it is rather at the American wars in the Pacific that we must look, and in particular those against Japan, and against which the war was intense but brief. Since then, the enemy has been China, which is the only real threat to the American domination of the Pacific, and has been so since the defeat of Japan: China and America have clashed directly in Korea. So, for the geopolitical role of Carthage, perhaps, one should rather speak of Japan and China. But perhaps one should add above all that the Spanish-American War of 1898, which allowed the United States to get hold of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, and which constitutes an important stage insofar as this is the first time that the United States undertook imperialist behavior, annexing territories overseas.
As for Turkey, no parallel is possible with Carthage. But, depending on how it might develop in the coming years, it could find a role similar to that of the Parthian Empire, that power in the inland, in the heart of the Eurasian island world, which was an enduring source of skirmishes for the Imperial Republic. In particular, I think that this could be the case following a collapse of Russia, which would allow Turkey to extend its hegemony over the whole of the Turkish world, up to Xinjiang, by way of all the former Soviet republics with names ending in “-stan.”
It is also a classic scheme: Prussia achieved the unity of Germany only after the diminishing of France, which had, since Richelieu, worked for the fragmentation of the Holy Empire and for French hegemony in those regions. Russia brought about the unity of the Slavic world only after the collapse of the German and Austrian empires. Thus, Turkey will not be able to bring about the unity of the Turkish world as long as the essential part of the latter is under Russian influence. A sort of pan-Turkish empire would make for a precise repetition of the Parthian Empire. And that is probably what will happen, if there is a military confrontation with Russia, because Turkey would be on the side of the victors, alongside NATO, and in the same position as Stalin in 1945.
GC: A common apprehension is that the Trump era is only a parenthesis in the sinking of contemporary America; and that with the return of Democrats, deemed inevitable in the decade to come, the march towards socialism and the geopolitical abdication will only resume in an amplified manner. You are rather confident as regards the fate of America in the 21st-century, projecting the evolution of its regime towards an authoritarian Right – and the instrumentalization of the United Nations for the purpose of establishing an American world state. Could you tell us more?
PF: In reality, my opinion is rather that America is indeed moving towards socialism, but that the latter will not be accompanied by a geopolitical abdication, quite the contrary. The first thing I see looming internally is a new American Civil War. Over the course of the year, I had been invited to the monthly luncheon of a major Parisian review, on the occasion of the release of my book, Rome, From Libertarianism to Socialism. At one point the director of the review had gone around the table asking each guest (there were about thirty of us, economists, journalists, a European deputy) to talk a bit about what seemed to him most interesting in the news. Most of my counterparts mentioned Ukraine, since we were at the start of tensions with Russia after the Maidan affair.
I was the only one to tackle a story that seemed, I think, anecdotal to most of my guests since, we quickly passed over it, without comment. This was the case of the Bundy ranch, in the United States. It was an armed rebellion around the legal dispute opposing a local farmer, Cliven Bundy, to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over land on which he was forbidden to graze his cattle, while he claimed he had been grazing his herds there for generations. The BLM had then tried to capture the cattle while they were grazing on the disputed ground, and, faced with the opposition of local militias rallied by Bundy, who were over-armed, as can only happen in American campaigns, they brought in federal troops, equally equipped, to fight Bundy and the militias.
My opinion at the time was that this matter was significant of what would eventually happen to the whole of Middle America when the gap between it and coastal, urban America only widened further. When I observed the hysterical reactions to the election of Donald Trump, and today when I see armed militias enter the Capitol of Michigan to protest against the confinement due to the coronavirus, I think my intuition has not deceived me.
The fact is that the United States is made up of one part that is the rural, continental America and which represents three-quarters of the mand-mass, and another part that is coastal (the Eastern and Western coastal strips). The first generally votes Republican; the second generally votes Democrat. The first has slow population growth and is generally poorer, and remains essentially white, little penetrated by immigration. The coastal states are more dynamic, and where immigration is also massing.
The gap between the two Americas has been widening for fifty years, while it hardly existed during the middle of the 20th-century. It seems less and less possible to reconcile those two mentalities politically. And this gap risks ending up causing a rupture of the American constitution. Let us remember that the election of the President of the United States, through the system of the greater voters, is a territorial as much as a demographic election: The vote by state balances the result in favor of the sparsely populated states, which mainly constitute white, rural and continental America.
In the election of Donald Trump, the “popular” vote, that is to say in number of votes, was won fairly widely by Hillary Clinton, with an advance of some three million votes. It is an argument that has been repeated many times by those who said – and still say – of Trump as, “Not my President.” Those in favor of Trump, or even simply objective, nuance that position by recalling that the voting system induces a different campaign strategy, and that if the election had been through a direct suffrage, Donald Trump would undoubtedly have led a different campaign, in which case he might have won the popular vote. So that we cannot “invalidate,” even in theory, the election of Trump, according to a democratic principle.
However, that discussion still says a lot about the growing fragility of the system, because it is in the political demagogic logic to focus on the simple mass, and the rapid demographic growth of coastal states, in particular through foreign immigration, mainly from Latin America, will increasingly benefit the Democrat camp in the number of votes.
But if Trump is re-elected and still does not win the popular vote, and in ten years, let us say after a Democratic alternation, a new elected Republican wins the presidency by lacking five, or ten million votes in the country, will that advance be concentrated in three or four very densely populated democratic states? One might think, of course, that there will be a risk of secession from those states.
But I do not think it would be the most likely scenario. Because the reality is that all the high places of power in the United States are in states that vote mainly Democrat. Rather than secession, the debate will therefore focus on the abrogation of the electoral college and the election of the President of the United States by direct universal suffrage, which also goes in the direction of the growing integration of the USA, by the magnification of the federal state, in the sense of a unitary state – which is a classic mode of development of a federation.
Of course, the political system will never result in a situation in which only the Democrats win and the Republicans never win an election again. Such a situation cannot exist for more than a few elections, for the ever-losing side adapts and adopts a line which brings the chances of success back to 50/50. It is the functioning of the political market. But this will also mean that the Republican Party should strongly converge on Democrat positions, and abandon a large part of the population of rural whites who love arms and the freedom to ignore the federal state.
I think that is where the political tipping point in the United States will be, perhaps with a hundred, a thousand insurrections like Bundy’s, and probably more violent, which will serve to justify the ban on weapons. The direct election of the President of the United States will make the presidential election a plebiscite election, which will go in the direction of an imperial mutation. And that will probably go hand in hand with socialist development, the appearance of universal income in one form or another, and so on.
As for the international situation, my idea is indeed that the United States has been working, since the beginning of the 20th-century to build a world state, something that the British Empire, for example, had never done, for the latter always perceived itself as a nation among others, elevated in strategic rivalry within the European game, and saw its world empire as a necessary strategic depth, while confining itself in Europe to maintaining a balance.
But the United States has a vision of itself very close to that of Rome: It sees itself as the free nation, which should not depend on anyone. They first tried to do that by being isolated – which was the meaning of the Monroe doctrine – and after a century, having noticed that they could not just cut themselves off from the world, they realized that the only way to be free was to be the world’s master, the universal suzerain. The United States, like Rome, does not accept equals. European countries have been accustomed, by a thousand years of history, to negotiate peer to peer, to make peace, to accept compromises. Americans at war are only looking for total victory – this was also the case with Rome.
This is part of the psychological paraphernalia of such nations. And in order to install their suzerainty, they end up developing institutions at the center of which are they, and which allow them to regulate the actions of other nations, including in peacetime. And the main institution they have set up for all this is the United Nations, which in fact has the role that representative assemblies have had in the building of nation-states – they serve, everywhere, to give superior legitimacy to the most powerful of feudal lords, and to go beyond that feudal order.
The UN, de facto, transforms the nation-states into subjects, and the United States, which has its seat, into the “Prince of the Nations.” The Security Council resembles all of those councils of the Greats who continued to assemble around the monarch in the early days of the monarchy, before absolutism. The great feudal lords can make their voices heard, but deep down, the institution serves the prestige of the prince.
As for the assembly, it serves to bring to the power of the prince an additional legitimacy for certain actions, mainly actions of authority against powerful recalcitrant lords. When we speak of the reaction of the “international community,” it is exactly that – it is about explaining that the action of the prince is in the common interest and for the ends of justice, and that it is not simply a coup de force of the strongest.
But we must be careful, here. I am not saying that the United States behaves like a bully. If the monarchy was chosen in preference to the feudal system everywhere, it is because most people found an advantage in it – pacification of relations, end of private wars (that is, interstate wars. This provided increased security and general enrichment, at first. But, in a second step, it also means centralization, uniformization. The multicultural model, the idea of a village-world, is both the cause and the effect of the progressive construction of a world state, which is only the repetition, on another scale, of the same process as the national scale. And the United States behaves vis-à-vis the United Nations as kings did vis-à-vis the Estates General – if the assembly supports the king, it is very good and that strengthens it; but if it opposes him, he reserves the right to override it, since it is he who holds true sovereignty.
But for the time being, there remain large powerful lords still capable of defying the king, such as the Montmorency or the Guise in France at the end of the 16th-century. Such are China and Russia. Their weakening is logically the last step before the imperial transformation of the American government – which is already underway, when one sees the increase in the use of American laws extraterritorially to exert pressures on foreign companies and governments. That makes you irrepressibly think of how kings used their power of justice as the first instrument to impose their power on all of their provinces. Sometimes, the judiciary power was even enough to bring down great rivals of the King of France – such was the case of Charles III of Bourbon.
GC: A contemporary line of research consists in exploring the genetic foundations of the cycle of ascension and decline of civilizations, envisioned as biocultural systems (within which genes and the acquired culture permanently interact). Here, the ascent allegedly coincides with the exercise of selection pressures (from the social or natural environment) which increase “general intelligence” or lengthen “life history.” The decline looms as the dysgenic trends linked to the attenuation of the aforesaid selection pressures erodes the “biological capital.” Does such an approach shed clear and satisfactory light on the structure of the necessary events (as opposed to the contingent and random aspect of history)?
PF: That is a question that I have only known about for a few years, and I admit that I did not have time to study that subject in detail. Until about five years ago, I was ignorant of all the literature and research on that question of genetics, intelligence, modification of average intelligence, etc. Those are things that are very much ignored in France, almost clandestine. If I have learned a lot about those subjects in recent years, it is because I have had the chance to meet a friend who is well trained in this field, who knows the bibliography and the state of knowledge well. It quite quickly became evident to me, indeed, that those factors must have a very important role in the cyclical nature of history, and the mechanisms already described previously for the constitution of nation-states – that to certain stages of economic, social and political development also probably correspond the fluctuations of average intelligence.
For example, it is quite striking to note that the scientific peak in a country always occurs at the same time as its movement of national revolution. With England, it is in the second half of the 17th-century, at the time of Newton. With France, it is at the end of the 18th-century, with Lavoisier, Sadi Carnot, Condorcet. With Germany, at the start of the 20th-century, with Planck, Einstein, Haber. Of course, this does not exclude, in each of those countries, that there are also some big names before and after – but at that time they are clearly above the rest; they are the heart of the great scientific revolutions of their time.
At first glance, I therefore think that biocultural evolution, the feedback loop between social and economic construction and the genetic selection of individuals, must indeed have a considerable place in the deterministic part of history. But before I can better measure whether it is preponderant and that I may better explain what are its driving forces, I will have to take the time to really study the literature on that subject, which I have not yet been able to do.
GC: Among the great tales that have structured European (and, by extension, Western) thought, there is the Hebrew perspective, according to which humanity is walking towards an era of peace and love, in which the people of Israel, not content with having put an end to their dispersion by gathering together on the soil of the Holy Land, will see their law and their god to be recognized among all the nations of the world.
We also should mention New Testament thought, where the final day of cosmic and human history will be that of the Last Judgment, during which Jesus, back in the earthly world, will judge all the deceased, resurrected on that occasion, and also the traditionalist thought that humanity has known since ancient times, of a “caste regression, ” of sacred leaders losing power to the warrior nobility; the nobility to merchants and serfs – which then ushers in its spiritual and moral degeneration, a degeneration whose final act is our egalitarian and utilitarian world (pending the start of the next cycle of degeneration).
With the hindsight that provides an overview of universal history, what do you think of those three narratives?
PF: Indeed, the traditionalist vision is seen, precisely, as a cyclical component, since, in fact, it is a movement that has already been accomplished several times: The ancients knew it; then the castes made their great return in the Middle Ages, and the regression of the castes started again, eventually resulting in social democracy. It is probable that after the fall of the American Empire, we will again enter a kind of Middle Ages, starting with the first stage.
As for the Jewish and Christian monotheistic narratives, it is difficult to adjudicate, since they have a linear vision in the very long term and are irrefutable: As long as there are human beings and thus history continues, one can always understand that there will be a coming/return of the Messiah. It is therefore a thought which is by nature outside of science.
On the other hand, what I can say as a historian is that monotheisms have a tendency to wear out, to get tired, in about a millennium and a half. They are very conquering in their first centuries, and bring about a kind of universal empire, which gradually falls apart. Then there is a millennialist revival, and finally religion falters and shrivels up.
One saw it with Judaism, with the kingdom of David and Solomon, its division, the dispersion of the Jews, the great impulse of conversion in the Roman Empire and of fanaticism going as far as terrorism (the Zealots), the messianist uprisings, and finally the advent of rabbinic Judaism, turned in on the community, and no longer proselytic.
Likewise, with Christianity from Constantine on – the Christian Empire, its disintegration, the advent of the Reformation, and associated with a lot of fanatical outbursts, like Savonarola, the Hussites, the Anabaptists of Munster, and then a slow numbness in Europe.
The same thing is happening to Islam, which is currently in its millennialist phase: Salafism is Muslim Protestantism. One wrongly speaks of “Islamoconservatism;” even while Salafism extols the step backwards, it is in the same mode as Luther and Calvin in the 16th-century. It is not conservatism, on the contrary. And so, I think that within a century or two, Islam will have become as harmless as Judaism and Christianity. But suddenly, there will be a void to fill and one will probably see something else appear.
GC: Insisting both on the internationalist doctrine of Islamic terrorist organizations and on the anti-capitalist nature of their discourse, you see contemporary militant Islam as the equivalent – within the Arab-Islamic world – of the Marxist-Leninist ideology. Should the nationalist and revolutionary Iran of the mullahs be envisaged as the equivalent of Stalinist Russia, which vilified “cosmopolitanism?” Regarding Xi Jinping’s China, engaged in a standoff with Uighur and Kazakh Muslims, does its opening to a semi-planned capitalist model lie within the same structural pattern as the “new economic policy” of Lenin?
PF: Yes, Iran can be seen like that, but I do not believe in its ability to be effectively for the Muslim world what Stalin’s USSR was for the communist world, because the fact that Iran is Shiite is a real hindrance to the penetration of Iranian power into the Arab world, which is Sunni. The Iranians tried to overcome that obstacle by making hatred of Israel the heart of their international propaganda, but it did not work very well.
I see Erdogan’s Turkey much more capable of assuming the role of the Islamist USSR. Erdogan enormously plays the card of pan-Islamism, even more so than that of pan-Turkism, and with a fluency all the greater than Ottoman history, which seems to give a form of legitimacy to Turkish ambitions. It has, in addition, very superior means: Turkish GDP is 50% higher than that of Iran; Turkey is better integrated in international trade; and the Turkish armed forces are much better equipped. Iran has likely reached the limits of its influence by somehow bringing together all of the Shiites under its control in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. It collides with a glass ceiling and is maintained only by way of Russian and Chinese support. And Iran’s regime is starting to age, more than forty years after its establishment, while Erdogan’s Islamism is, I think, more dynamic.
Regarding China, it has only a few Muslims in its Eastern markets, and the problem for it is thus less acute. One can effectively compare the ideological concessions made from Deng Xiaoping to the NEP of Lenin, but I must say that, in general and except for fanatic exceptions like the Khmer Rouge, I am very reluctant when it comes to the determining aspect of ideology in the history of communism. I think that Marxism-Leninism had only very briefly a decisive role, and that the rest of the time it was mainly a rationalization for much deeper political evolutions. For example, I think that there was a real communist will in Russia, precisely and only before the NEP. I think that the mass collectivization resumed under the leadership of Stalin in the late 1920s because he needed to accumulate capital to create an industry, but above all an army, in order to conquer Europe.
That was the underlying determinism that guided his action, since Stalin was a revolutionary nationalist leader like Napoleon and Hitler. He was not overwhelmingly driven by communism, rather by the Russian expansionist drive, like French Jacobinism and German National Socialism. In China, Mao’s communism is the form taken by the Chinese equivalent of the Meiji imperial restoration in Japan – a very strong collective reaction to Western penetration, a nationalist will to rebuild and regain lost status. Structurally, is the Chinese Communist Party regime very far from the imperial regime and the administration of the Mandarins? I do not think so. In the end, the real change between the imperial regime before 1911 and that established under Mao, is that the earlier Mandarins were mainly Manchu, while the Chinese are mainly Hans, and that today the Chinese elites are mainly Han.
That is one of my main concerns throughout my works. I think that, for a century, we have given a causal role, which is also highly decisive, to ideologies, whereas they often only and ultimately embody much more primitive impulses. I should clarify. I do not believe, like Marxists, that the displayed motives are always untrue or hypocritical and that history is materialistic, and that the real causes of historical movements are economic. No, there are real fundamental reasons which are purely psychological, and nationalism is one of them; it is a real collective impulse. But when we see that Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin did pretty much the same things and pursued the same goals, even though their overt ideologies were very different, we must methodically deduce that those ideologies had no determining role and only served as window-dressing to the real underlying motive, which is similar in all cases.
GC: Let us allow ourselves a bit of alternative history after historionomy. It is well known that 8th-century Europe almost fell under the yoke of the Umayyad Caliphate, and that Christianity then owed its triumph over the Islamic invader by way of various military victories, including the battle of Poitiers which stayed famous for Christian Europe.
A more overlooked fact is that the Hellenized Judaism of the time of Jesus had constituted itself as a universal religion, which was turned towards a peaceful and philosophical proselytism, notwithstanding the Zealot revolts, intended to precipitate the universal reign of peace and of the mosaic law by liberating Judea. And that Christianity and Judaism during the first centuries of the common era would be veritably in competition for the conquest of Pagan minds, most of the inhabitants of the empire (in default to actually converting) were “judaizing,” in that they were assimilating Jewish practices such as Shabbat. From the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem to the abolition of the Jewish Patriarchate of Palestine, through the conversion of Constantine, Judaism would obviously be marginalized and discredited for the benefit of its own offspring.
Had it not been for the victory of Christianity under the Roman Empire. or the backflow of Islam in the 8th-century, would the fate of Europe have been significantly different today?
PF: Very precisely historionomy allows for the sorting of the possible and impossible alternative history scenarios; and I can therefore tell you the following things. First, Judaism could not compete with Christianity, for reasons that I have already mentioned on the fatigue of monotheisms. In the middle of the Second Century, Judaism had greatly exceeded the populations of the Roman Empire, by the excesses of its Zealots who nourished the same dreams as today the partisans of the Islamic State dream; and its rabbinical reform was not made to make it a religion very easy to disseminate – whereas, to the contrary, Christianity, from the Council of Jerusalem, had evacuated a whole lot of Mosaic prohibitions, in particular on circumcision and food, which made the Christian faith much easier to diffuse.
Concerning the Islamic threat, I am not convinced that Europe was really threatened with conquest – past the Pyrenees, the Umayyads were immediately stopped in Toulouse in 721; and the expeditions which led the Muslims to Tours were not conquest operations, but rather raids. Furthermore, if Islam relatively easily progressed to the Pyrenees, it is because Spain and part of the Maghreb were of Arian faith, much more compatible with the idea of a further revelation of Muhammad than was the Orthodox Christianity which prevailed in the land under Frankish domination. Let us recall that it was under the impetus of Charlemagne that the Filioque would be integrated into the creed. And, as well, this was already a century after the first impulse of Muslim conquest; and it is rare that serial conquests spread without petering out over more than a century.
The Mongol conquests extended between 1206 and 1279, the date when they reached their most distant Western point with penetration into the plains of Hungary. The essential part of the Ottoman conquests was made between 1430 and 1530. Even the entire empire of Rome outside Italy was conquered in one century and a half. So, even if the Umayyads had taken Toulouse or even Tours, it is unlikely that they would have managed to go further; and not long after their arrival they would have first needed to confront Frankish reconquest efforts, since the heart of Frankish power was in Austrasia, between Metz, Tournai and Cologne.
It is hard to believe that those who built Charlemagne’s empire in our understanding would not have been able to shake up Arab-Berbers enemies of Christ. And even if that had not been the case, it is the Vikings whom those Muslim invaders would have had to suffer under. In summary, progress beyond Aquitaine would have been very difficult, and installation in Aquitaine itself would have been complicated. So, I can accept a range of possibilities that went as far as taking Aquitaine, but not beyond that. Even less so since, when the Muslims were arrested in Aquitaine, the Reconquista had already started in Asturias.
But for the exercise, let us assume that by a remarkable accident the Muslims arrived in Saxony, seized all of Italy and converted all of Western Europe to Islam, all the way to Scotland. What would have happened?
Some events of relative magnitude would not have taken place – the Crusades against the Muslim world, in particular. But the crusades against the pagan world in the East would no doubt have taken place, and with even more vigor, under the banner of Islam.
The fact remains that Europe would have always benefited from its geographic advantages – the articulated thalassography, a geography favoring the emergence of states with stable borders. When the Muslim Empire disintegrated into a multitude of political entities during the 9th-century, this would also have been the case in Europe, as it was the case with the disintegration of the Carolingian Empire. No caliph would have succeeded in imposing his authority on Europe, given the distance of the Abbasids; and especially when one bears in mind the stormy relations between the Papacy and the Empire. It is even likely that Europe would have given itself a competing caliph.
The construction of European nation-states would therefore have been primed, as in our own time, with simply a practice of Islam – and still probably it would have been an altered practice, because it is difficult to conceive the prohibition of pork in countries where that meat has been part of the staple food since earliest antiquity. So, no, the fate of Europe would likely not have been very different. The Muslim world, if extended to Europe, would still have known a divide between the world to the north of the Pyrenees dominated by the German mentality since the Great Invasions, and the Mediterranean world – for we must not be mistaken, if Islam did not succeed in going North of the Pyrenees it is also because it was then entering another geographical, cultural, mental area, and those differences would not have been erased by religious conversion.
GC: Thank you for your time. Would you like to add a thing or two?
PF: We did not have time to talk about it, but Phoenicia was an aborted Greece, precisely because it did not benefit from a well-articulated thalassography and solid natural borders and was easily absorbed by Assyria. It is enough to look at a map of the colonization of the ancient Mediterranean to see that there was exactly the same movement of migration (Greek or Phoenician) on both sides. It is worth remembering that Phoenician culture was not less complex than Greek culture. But the Greeks benefited from being a very mountainous peninsula difficult to reach by the Persians for centuries, and therefore they were not absorbed.
The image shows the wheel of fortune (rota fortunae), from a leaf of Josephus’s Judaean War, Book VII, ca. 13th-century.
The average Christian, reading his Bible in happy devotion, stumbles across this passage: Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church (Col 1:24).
The passage is particularly disturbing for a certain strain of Protestant thought that emphasizes Christ’s sufficiency for all things. Christ has accomplished all things necessary to our salvation and we are thus able to “rest” in His completed work. For many, this is at the heart of grace. God has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves. What remains is for us to trust that this is so. Christ declares, “It is finished.” There is nothing left for us but trust.
This sentiment recently came crashing into a discussion of the Russian novel, Laurus. I attended (and spoke) at the Eighth Day Symposium in Wichita, Kansas. The presenter, Jessica Hooten Wilson, had spoken on the Russian novel, Laurus, by Eugene Vodolazkin, in which the lead character enters the long, arduous life of a holy fool following the death of a woman and her child, a result of his own inaction. Wilson made mention of a review by Alan Jacobs (Baylor University) that described its spirituality as “Hindu,” and castigated its approach to Christianity. He wrote: “…though I know that Eugene Vodolazkin is a Christian, I remain uncertain about just what vision of the Christian life is being held out to me in this book…. In Laurus…long, hard spiritual labor pays for sins, as it does for the world…”
Vodolazkin nowhere characterizes Laurus’ labors as a payment for sin. Indeed, the concept is foreign to Orthodox thought. It is an absence that is so profound that a Protestant professor of literature felt the need to supply it, and with it, distort a beautifully Orthodox novel. In the discussion at the conference, a Protestant participant agreed that the novel seemed strangely unable to “rest” in Christ. Inasmuch as I am often not in dialog with Protestant Christians, I was caught off-guard by these observations. I forgot how foreign all of this is. Happily, it is also foreign to the New Testament.
Whatever one might think of grace, the work of Christ on the Cross in no way removes the work of the Cross from the lives of believers. We are baptized into the death of Christ, and continue to say throughout our lives: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless, I live” (Gal. 2:20). It is Christ who taught that we ourselves must take up the Cross and follow Him. There is no “resting” Christianity made available by a substitutionary work of Christ. The work of Christ is a matter of participation (koinonia) – we are baptized into it, live through its presence in us, and do not cease to share in that work, ever.
It is always difficult to listen to what is actually being said and not try to hear a conversation that is not taking place. Salvation, in Latin Christianity, was made captive, rather early on, to the language of “grace” and “works.” Within what would become a dominantly juridical framework, grace and works were easily externalized, raising questions about who was doing the “saving.”
When St. Paul says that he is filling up “that which is lacking” in Christ’s afflictions, he is either subscribing to some form of Pelagianism, or he simply has no notion of a juridical salvation. No doubt, the latter is the actual case.
When he says that he is crucified with Christ, St. Paul means precisely what he is saying. Indeed, it is the deepest cry of his heart: “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him – the power of his resurrection, and the communion of His sufferings, becoming like Him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:8-11).
This has nothing of the language of earning, much less external grace and works. It is the language of the most intimate, mystical communion.
We know a little bit about this experience, for it is common in relationships marked by intense love. The coldness of a conversation regarding who did what, or what is owed to whom, has no place in such intimacy. Love speaks in terms of union. It wants to share in the deepest manner possible the life of the beloved.
There appeared a rift in Protestantism within its first two to three centuries. That rift, to a large extent, represented a deep dissatisfaction with a cold, sterile presentation of the life of grace. Early Protestants almost universally held to a doctrine of “cessationism,” teaching that miracles ended when the New Testament was completed. What remained were the rather mechanical/intellectual doctrines that assured of salvation. Dry as dust.
The reaction to this was the birth of Pietism, in a variety of forms and places. At its worst, Pietism’s emotionalism led to extremes of belief and practice. At its best, it produced holy lives and gave heart to what would have been little more than a dry death to Western Christianity. Inasmuch as Western Christianity survives our present difficulties, it will be the heart born in Pietism that saves it (or so I think).
The transformation of the Pietist conversion experience into the doctrine of being “born-again” has tended to confuse Pietism and classical Protestantism, framing the experience of the heart in the rigid language of doctrinal necessity. Like many aspects of Protestantism(s), fragmentation in doctrine and experience has been a continuing and dominant feature.
Classical Christianity, in its Orthodox form, is very rich in its vocabulary and stories of the human experience of God. It is always “ontological” in its approach to doctrine, meaning that doctrine is always about “something-that-is” and not about a theory, or a juridical arrangement. Because “something-that-is” is capable of being experienced, it is always seen as quite natural that the work of God has a describable, experiential component.
If I am being crucified with Christ, it is inherently the case that such a thing is experienced in some manner. In the case of a holy fool, it might look a lot like the Laurus character. He must be contrasted with the middle-class American who sings happy songs on Sunday, perhaps even moved to tears, satisfied and assured that Jesus has taken care of everything such that he can safely return to the banalities of his life. Isn’t Jesus wonderful!
The simple truth is that the Kingdom of God “suffers violence, and the violent bear it away” (Matt. 11:12). The gospel engages the whole person and assumes that we will love God “with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind.” That such an engagement might be described by some as “works righteousness” is merely indicative of a bifurcated Christianity that has placed God in a second-storey doctrinal reality, while the secular party rages here below.
Thank God for the Lauruses sprinkled across the historical landscape. The unity of faith and experience exemplified in their sometimes stormy lives whispers hope that God dwells among us and loves us, willing Himself into the messiness of our crucified existence, ever-straining Himself into the depths of our being, while we strain to respond in kind, enduring “that which is lacking in the afflictions of Christ” – our own response to His love.
“I think a curse should rest upon me – because I love this war. I know it’s smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment — and yet — I can’t help it — I enjoy every second of it.”
These words, spoken by Winston Churchill to Violet Asquith on February 22, 1915, suggest a soul dislodged from the fundamental attitude proper to a member of Christian civilization. This attitude towards a war that was wrecking the vestiges of Christendom is not really surprising when we consider Churchill’s well-known membership in the Order of Freemasonry (from 1895) and his also well-known, at least to historians, initiation into the Neo-Pagan Druid Order (from 1908).
The existence and influence of such men as Winston Churchill are the only explanations for the blind inhuman ferocity with which World War I was pursued by the belligerents during the years 1914-1916. The theological, philosophical, and ideological positions of Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty and chief architect of the Gallipoli landings in 1915, simply exemplify the general loss of a Christian consciousness on the part of the leaders of the great Western Powers.
This complete lack of adherence to even the most basic principles of traditional Just War doctrine, was simply incomprehensible to Pope Benedict XV. Why would a war be tolerated which, unlike all others up until that date in European history, seriously threatened to wipe out a vast percentage of the young men on the Continent? Why would not the leaders of Britain and France, chastened and awakened after suffering the loss of 624,000 men in the Battle of the Somme alone, enthusiastically take up consideration of any proposal for a reasonable peace? Why were most of the peace initiatives during the years 1917 and 1918, treated to bemused dismissal and scarcely hidden contempt?
Pope Benedict XV, during the most critical year in contemporary history 1917, found himself confronting men who, like Churchill, appeared to have jettisoned “outdated” humane and moral concerns. That this new non-Christian understanding of conflict and war was not just to characterize the conflict of 1914-1918, is shown by Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s and President Franklin Roosevelt’s drafting and signing of a version of the Morgenthau Plan at the Second Quebec conference of 1944 in which they pledged to turn the heavily urbanized and industrial nation of Germany “into a country primarily agricultural and pastoral in its character.”
What we can say with certainty is that July 1914 inaugurated a generation of political and military slaughtering which was often perpetrated for the sake of “Progress.” It was the dramatic end to an unparalleled era in European history, an era of civil and, on the whole, international peace. It is quite possible that the casualties of all European wars since the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte (1815) did not exceed in number the figure for a single day’s losses in any of the great battles of 1916.
War 1916: Stalemate , U-Boats, and Blockades
December 1916 marked a watershed in World War I. It was a moment when the increasing futility of the military stalemate on the Western Front, induced one side of the conflict – the Central Powers – to seriously consider a negotiated peace. Contrary to a certain simplistic understanding, a desire for a cessation of hostilities and negotiations does not necessarily originate from an experienced position of vulnerability and relative inferiority.
There was a definite long-range prudence and maturity revealed in the Central Powers’ (the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Turkish Ottoman Empire) efforts towards a negotiated peace late in 1916. Not all of it can be attributed to the accession of devote and eminently humane Karl I to the Austrian Imperial Throne and the Hungarian Royal Throne at the death of his great-uncle Franz Josef in November. This “maturity,” which I speak of, can be shown by the fact that these Powers were actually “winning” the war to an extent.
Their military position and advantage appeared for all to see with their knocking the Entente ally, Romania out of the war and conquering Bucharest itself in the beginning of December 1916. Seeking to compensate for the British attempt at a starvation blockade of food and supplies to the Reich, the German military had ordered submarine warfare. This new kind of warfare, which targeted both enemy and neutral shipping, was roundly condemned by Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, the Papal Secretary of State, in the autumn of 1915, speaking of it as “appalling and immoral.”
For the Germans, both during and after the war, this conflict on the open seas was only an attempt to offset the unrestricted blockade imposed by the Entente Powers, which was, also, contrary to established international law. The Great War thus became “as much a war of competing blockades, the surface and the submarine, as of competing armies.”
The German Peace Offensive
The complete stalemate in the Western trenches plus the ruthless warfare at sea, serves as the backdrop of the German Peace Note of December 1916. From the evidence, it appears that Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany believed that everyone (i.e., the leaders of all of Great European Powers) secretly desired peace but that each belligerent was reluctant to be the first to admit it openly. The content of the German Note was simple and clear enough; some commentators called its tone “arrogant.”
Whatever the tone, the Note stated that the war was one of unprecedented fury that threatened to destroy the material and spiritual progress which the 20th century had such a right to be proud of. The Central Empires had amply demonstrated their might and would continue to fight boldly if this peace initiative was ignored. They were, however, desirous of putting an end to the bloodshed. If the Entente Powers agreed to immediate peace negotiations, the Central Powers would guarantee existence, honor, and freedom of development, and would do everything possible to restore lasting peace for the nations then engaged in conflict.
To this German Peace Note, there was no papal response. Benedict XV and Cardinal Gasparri would later, on March 7, 1917, explain, in a letter to the Cardinal-Archbishop of Cologne, that the reason for the coolness of the papal response to the peace gesture on the part of the German Kaiser was that a communication had been received from the British Government, which said that any intervention on the part of the Pope would be “ill-conceived” by Britain and France.
Benedict’s view was that if he offended the Entente Powers at that time, any future efforts would be met with outright antagonism. Moreover, since the Note lacked specific mention of a proposal for the reestablishment of independence for the Kingdom of Belgium, Benedict and Gasparri were not convinced of the usefulness of the initiative. So the Kaiser’s Peace Proposal came to naught. This German peace initiative is usually forgotten by conventional accounts of World War I.
What is also forgotten is the fact that it was only after the failure of this initiative that all restrictions on submarine warfare were lifted. German strategy in this war from the beginning was characterized by a great willingness to gamble. This appeared justified for the Germans at the time on account of the fact that the numbers, both in terms of man power and in terms of production capacity, were heavily skewed against them.
For example, the Entente enjoyed an immense economic superiority over the Central Powers with a combined national income 60% greater. The combined Allies also had 4.5 times as men as great a population as compared to the Germans, Austrians, and the Turks with 28% more men mobilized for the war effort. The policy of the Germans prior to early 1917 and the failure of their peace venture was to sink, without warning, ships believed to be carrying war supplies to Britain.
The German General Staff believed that such a gamble would bring about the defeat of Britain before the United States could make an effective military contribution to the war. This strategy was tried 3 times in 1915, when the Lusitania and Arabic were sunk. It was because of such actions that the German Empire found itself confronted with the outward, rather than just the covert, animosity of the American Republic.
The Pope’s First Moves
Even though British and French disapproval had prevented Pope Benedict XV from taking up the peace proposal made by the German Emperor in 1916 and identical pressure had persuaded him to remain officially aloof, although privately supportive, from the clandestine effort by Blessed Emperor Karl of Austria to establish a back-channel connection to France via his brothers-in-law, Prince Sixtus and Xavier of Bourbon-Parma, both Entente officers, Benedict and his Secretary of State were not inactive in pursuing what they say to be the only “solution” to the conflict, immediate peace and the restoration of the European status quo ante.
In this, they were joined by a whole menagerie of political groups and individuals who were moved by various motives, ideological principles, and, likely, simple human empathy to demand an end to the suicidal European conflict.
For those on the Left, this war was simply proving to be a capitalist enterprise in which the “military-industrial complex” was benefitting and capitalist nations were attempting to ruthlessly expand their markets. For the traditionalist Right, the war was proving to be just what many had, all along, feared it would be, the catalyst of European social, economic, and political breakdown. This rightist analysis seemed to be conclusively demonstrated by the February Revolution in Russia in 1917 in which the ancient Monarchy was toppled and a provisional parliamentary government put in its place.
It would be this unhistorical, rootless Russian parliamentary regime that the Communist coup d’état would topple in the famous October Revolution in that same year. We can perhaps see the mental make-up of the man when we realize that Woodrow Wilson became ecstatic when he heard the news of the fall of the Russian Imperial Dynasty and then naively stated that, “Now Russia is fit for a league of honor.” The US president, of course, meant that now Russia, having shed its age-old Monarchy, would continue the War as one of the “enlightened” Democratic Powers.
He, also, revealed, in this outburst, that his campaign theme of 1916 “He Kept Us Out of War,” was not to be taken as final. Within a month, the United States, also, would be in this enlightened and “liberating” League. Here, contrary to the implicit beliefs of the Democratists, it was the democratic republican government of Russia in 1917 that wanted to continue fighting the war against the Germans and Austrians. It was the Emperor Nicholas II who was of the view that peace must be concluded quickly for the survival of Russia.
It was for precisely this reason that Lloyd George, the war-enthusiast “Methodist Machiavelli,” who refused to accept the Russian Imperial Family into exile in Britain since the Prime Minister viewed Nicholas as a traitor to the Entente cause. Remember, the Russian general’s phone which ought be “smashed” in order not to receive from the Emperor any order contrary to the provocative mobilization ordered by Minister of War, Sukhomlinov and General Yanushkevitch in August 1914.
What was the immediate cause of a new and final papal effort to halt the slaughter was the efforts of a man who was well-known to the Vatican. The leader of the German Catholic Center Party, Matthias Erzberger was the primary agent of the Imperial Government in its efforts of 1915 to keep Germany’s former ally Italy out of the war.
In this mission, Erzberger had worked closely with the Vatican and had meetings with Pope Benedict himself. Now, Erzberger, in the summer of 1917 after the US declaration of war against Germany but before significant involvement in the European theater of American troops, had been “converted” to a non-annexationist position, that is one which held that Germany should conclude a peace based upon the pre-war borders.
Benedict XV believed that Germany was the key to a successful peace process. Unlike the Entente Powers, Germany and Austria were in control of large areas of occupied territory, most especially Belgium, whose restitution was for the Entente the sine qua non of any settlement.
Benedict began with the premise that only the indication of willingness on Germany’s part to evacuate occupied territory would persuade the Entente to come to the negotiating table. Benedict and Cardinal Gasparri made careful preparations, in the winter and spring of 1917, for what would become their historic peace initiative. In May, in anticipation of the Peace Note, the Pope made personal contact with Blessed Emperor Karl and Empress Zita of Austria.
The Pacelli Factor
If the Germans were the key to peace, Benedict would need a trusted and skilled envoy who could fashion, in conjunction with the Germans, a plausible proposal for peace to present before the Western Allied Powers. That young cleric was Eugenio Pacelli, the priest who would occupy the Papal Throne during the 20th century’s next conflagration – a conflagration, by the way, which was almost the direct result of the failure of the Allies to accept the peace carefully crafted by Archbishop Pacelli. Msgr. Eugenio Pacelli was not a unknown factor at the Vatican in 1917. The Pacelli family had long been involved in Vatican affairs.
The two-year old Eugenio had been brought to the death bed of Blessed Pius IX who is reported to have said, “Teach this little son well so that one day he will serve the Holy See.” He had attended the elite Instituto Capranica, the seminary attended by Benedict himself, and Pacelli, like Benedict, had become a protégé of Cardinal Rampolla during the Cardinal’s years as Secretary of State under Leo XIII.
For those who understand the importance of the Fatima message, it cannot be without significance that Eugenio Pacelli was consecrated as a bishop, and then given the honor of the pallium, on May 13, 1917 (the first day of the Fatima apparitions in Portugal) in a ceremony in the Sistine Chapel by Pope Benedict XV himself. The Pope wanted to give Msgr. Pacelli as much prestige as would be necessary in the royal courts of Germany for this most important peace venture.
If it were not for the eventual contemptuous dismissal of the Pope’s Peace, Archbishop Pacelli’s mission to Germany in this critical year of the war would have been a complete success. After arriving at the royal court of Bavaria (there very much used to be such!), Archbishop Pacelli found the opportunity of making a personal overture, in the name of Benedict XV, to Kaiser Wilhelm himself.
For a man who had been trained to display a complete self-control and dignified comportment, it was indicative of the Emperor’s frustration and emotion when he, with quivering lips, angrily responded to the papal letter which asked him to redouble his efforts to hasten the advent of peace even though it should be at the expense of some of the German objectives.
Wilhelm said that he could not conceal his annoyance at the fact that his own peace efforts of December 1916 had been “snubbed by Benedict XV in so unheard of a manner as not to have merited the courtesy of some reply.” While maintaining complete composure, Archbishop Pacelli stated that certain actions of Germany, for example the deportation of Belgian workers, did not give the Pope reason to attach much confidence to the peace overtures.
According to Walter H. Peters, “The Emperor seems to have taken this argument in good part. He admitted that although the action looked bad at first sight, it had not been against international law. He could not be forced to run the security risk of allowing civilians to remain behind German lines.” Despite the friction and voiced complaints, the meeting with Nuncio Pacelli seems to have made a very positive impression on the Kaiser.
In his autobiography published in 1922, after his abdication and during his exile in Holland, Wilhelm II described his impression of the young Archbishop Pacelli at this critical meeting — critical for what would become Pope Benedict XV’s most important intervention in the World War. The Kaiser describes Pacelli as having, “an aristocratic, likeable, and distinguished appearance, with great intelligence and impeccable manners, the perfect model of a high prelate of the Catholic Church.”
This favorable impression, and the potential within the papal appeal, led the Kaiser, within two weeks, to follow up on the issues discussed at this meeting. On July 12th, the Kaiser arranged a dinner meeting at which the German Chancellor was to present the final draft of a peace resolution which was to go to the German parliament, the Reichstag.
Wilhelm was pleased with the draft since it repeated the statement that the Emperor himself had made in his Address from the Throne of August 4, 1914, in which he stated, “We are not animated by any desire for conquest.” It, also, repeated the statement that Germany had taken up arms only to preserve her independence and to keep intact her possessions.
This was the basic text passed by the Reichstag, with some slight alterations made due to the increasing influence of Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff. On July 14, 1917, the revised peace resolution was laid before the Kaiser, along with a reply that was to be sent to the letter presented by Archbishop Pacelli.
The Kaiser, seeing that the letter was dated August 13 – meaning the Chancellor had intended to significantly delay the German response to the Pope’s letter – said, “Vier Wochen, das ist unhöflich gegen den alten Pontifex!” (“Four weeks, that is discourteous towards the aged Pontiff!). Archbishop Pacelli was delighted with the German response to the Pope’s proposals.
After meeting for two days with the German Chancellor, he returned to Rome on July 25th, with an understanding that the German government was now ready to accept papal peace proposals. Pope Benedict then used this occasion to present his very specific peace proposal to the British representative at the Vatican, Count de Salis.
The Holy Father gave him several sealed envelopes. Each contained a copy of the historical Papal Peace Note of 1917. The British Government was asked to forward the note to France, Italy, and the United States whose governments were not represented at the Vatican. The die was cast.
The Papal Peace Note of August 1917
The Papal Peace Note was very straight forward and apparently non-controversial. It does not seem possible that it could have received such a negative response from several of the warring parties. In the introductory paragraph, the Pope enumerated appeals he had previously made in general terms. He said that the time had come to propose concrete and practical propositions. The task of adjusting them and completing them he would leave to the nations themselves.
The specific proposals were seven in number: 1) Substitution of Moral Force of Right for Law of Material Force; 2) A Simultaneous and Reciprocal Decrease of Armaments; 3) The Establishment of International Courts of Arbitration to Adjudicate Conflicts between Nations; 4) True Freedom and Community of the Seas; 5) Reciprocal Renunciation of War Indemnities; 6) Evacuation and Restoration of All Territories Occupied During the War; 7) Examination in a Conciliatory Spirit of Rival Territorial Claims [e.g., the question of Alsace and Lorraine].
The National Responses to the Papal Peace Proposals were as follows:
Germany: “For a long time His Majesty [Wilhelm II] with profound respect and sincere gratitude had followed the efforts of His Holiness to assuage the sufferings of war…and to hasten the end of the hostilities. The emperor sees in this most recent step of His Holiness a new proof of the noble and humanitarian sentiments, he entertains the lively hope that…success may come to the papal appeal.”
Austria-Hungary: Blessed Emperor Karl I gave an enthusiastic endorsement to the Papal Peace Note.
Bulgaria (one of the Central Powers): King Ferdinand replied to the Peace Note on September 26, 1917, in terms of reverence and loyalty.
Ottoman Empire: The Sultan of the Turkish Moslem Empire, Mehmed V, in an autographed letter on September 30, said that he was “deeply touched by the lofty thoughts of His Holiness.”
France: No direct response to the Pope’s Note. Merely a sharply worded statement issued by Foreign Minister Ribot to the British Government indicating that they (the French) did not intend to have an official statement in writing communicated to the Holy See. The British Government was asked to, “discourage any further attempt on the part of the Papal Secretary of State in the direction of an official intervention between the belligerents.”
Italy: In an address to the Italian Senate, Baron Sydney Sonnino, Italian Foreign Minister, stated that the Note was nothing but the work of Germany and that the proposals were utterly impracticable.
Britain: Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Minister (famous for the Balfour Declaration), responded in a very non-committal way: “His Majesty’s Government, not having as yet been able to take the opinion of their Allies, cannot say whether it would serve any useful purpose to offer a reply or, if so, what form such a reply should take. Although the Central Powers have admitted their guilt in regard to Belgium, they have never definitely intimated that they intend either to restore her to her former state or entire independence or to make good the damage she has suffered at their hands.”
Papal Peace Meets American Democratic Messianism
Wilson’s Intervention “What does he want to butt in for?” Here we have the unique first response from President Woodrow Wilson upon the presentation of the Pope’s Peace Note to him at the White House in August of 1917. The relations between the Roman Pontiff and the Presbyterian minister’s son from the Shenandoah Valley who sat in the White House had always been a bit tense. Contrary to pacific statements and neutralist campaign slogans, at the Vatican it was always understood that the United States, under its Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, was not actually a neutral and impartial player in the Great European Conflict.
The United States was clearly helping the Entente and for what the Vatican believed were selfish reasons. It was held that the US was committed to France and Britain because of economic ties. Benedict XV, in particular, deplored the United States’ arms trade with France and Britain, especially when it was carried on the passenger vessels, thus providing a causa belli against Germany. In light of this, it was as early as April of 1915, a full two years before official US involvement in the war, that Benedict called upon the United States to enforce an arms embargo against both sides.
This, of course, was never done. Included in this analysis of the American attitude towards the war, must have been a recognition that the tragedy of the sinking of the British liner RMS Lusitania, had been engineered to ease the United States’ entry into the war. This joint British-American operation had been executed at the expense of 1,198 human lives. Among the dead were 128 Americans.
On April 22, 1915, a week and a half before the liner departed, an announcement was issued by the German Embassy in Washington which warned passengers that Germany was in a state of war with Great Britain and, therefore, all ships sailing under her or her allies’ flag were subject to attack and that passengers were, therefore, traveling at their own risk. For some unknown reason, newspapers did not publish the warning until the day of departure. Some 8 miles off the coast of Ireland, a German U-20 submarine fired one torpedo at the liner. After the torpedo hit there was a second explosion. Within 18 minutes the ship sank, with the passengers in general panic.
As the Germans insisted at the time, and a 1960 investigation by an American John Light confirmed, the ship had been filled to the gills with contraband munitions making it a legitimate target according to international law. Included in this stock, were some 4,200,000 rounds of Remington .303 rifle cartridges.
This was also confirmed by later British documents that came to light along with the ship’s manifest, which had been given to Woodrow Wilson and was only released at the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Allen Welsh Dulles, brother of the future Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, knew well of the engineering of the tragedy.
It would still be some 2 years until the United States officially entered the conflict. Perhaps, this was to get past the presidential election of 1916 in which Wilson barely, due to a narrow margin in the State of California, beat his Republican opponent Charles Evans Hughes, on a platform of neutralism and peace, “He Kept US Out of War!” It was immediately after the election that Wilson momentarily acted as the neutral observer of the horror of the European conflict.
On December 20, 1916, when the peace efforts of the Central Powers were well underway, the United States issued an appeal that included the statement, “The President is not proposing peace; he is not even offering mediation. He is merely proposing that soundings be taken in order that we may learn, the neutral nations [here he apparently includes the United States] with belligerents, how near the haven of peace may be for which all mankind longs with an intense and increasing longing.”
When, only 4 months after the “peace appeal,” Wilson broke off relations with the German Empire, clearly in preparation for a declaration of war, the Holy See attempted to heal the breach — seemingly due to the impression at the Vatican that the United States was merely reacting to individual acts of the German military and political authorities. Therefore, we can understand the shock experienced by the Pope when he heard the news of the United States’ declaration of war against the Central Powers in April of 1917.
This was understood by Pope Benedict XV to be an unmitigated disaster. His Holiness understood, with utmost clarity, that American intervention would extend the time of the conflict since there would be absolutely no reason for the Entente Powers to consider a cease-fire or armistice.
Even though it is difficult get into the mind of another man, particularly if that man is the Vicar of Christ, it appears that the Pope did not fully appreciate the extent to which the Presbyterian President viewed the war in Europe as a “crusade” for equality and democracy.
This is the only explanation for the blind-siding of the Pope in this case and in Wilson’s final and conclusive rejection of Benedict’s great peace initiative of August 1, 1917. Wilson believed that this war was one of the “enlightened” Powers of parliamentary and democratic regimes, recently stripped of the “embarrassment” of Nicholas II, against the dark “holdovers.”
Wilson’s throwing of America’s sword onto the scale of the Entente Powers, changed the conflict from a fratricidal conflict over Alsace-Lorraine and Flanders, to a global crusade against Monarchy and, what would show itself after the war, against Papal influence in the political affairs of the world. In other words, against historical Christendom.
It would not be stretching it to say that with the rejection of Pope Benedict’s Peace Note of August 1917, Woodrow Wilson became the grave-digger of Christendom. What might not have happened had not the war continued to its tragic end – the downfall of the Russian, Austrian, and Prussia monarchies? Can we venture Communist Russia, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, World War II, the Cold War, Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine, Korea, Red China, Vietnam, the Social Revolution of the 1960s, and perhaps, Vatican II?
What we can be certain of is that these things would not have happened as they did if Wilson had not, “butted in.” It is only with this anti-monarchical and anti-papal attitude in mind that we can understand the patronizing and cool response of Woodrow Wilson, through his Secretary of State Robert Lansing, to the Papal Peace Note.
Robert Lansing prepared the world for Wilson’s fatal response by his own articulation of the fundamental principle of American foreign policy, both then and now: “No people can desire war, particularly an aggressive war. If the people can exercise their will, they will remain at peace. If a nation possesses democratic institutions, the popular will will be executed. Consequently, if the principle of democracy prevails in a nation, it can be counted upon to preserve peace and oppose wars…If this view is correct, then the effort should be made to make democracy universal.”
In a letter dated August 27, 1917, Robert Lansing, speaking for President Wilson, responded to the Pope’s Peace Note by stating the following, “No part of this program can be carried out. The object of this war is to deliver the free peoples of the world from the menace and the actual power of a vast military establishment controlled by an irresponsible government which having planned secretly to dominate the world, proceeded to carry the plan out. This power is not the German people. It is the ruthless master of the German people. It is no business of ours how that great people came under its control. But it is out business to see that the history of the rest of the world is no longer left to its handling…. They desire no reprisal upon the German people who have themselves suffered all things in this war which they did not choose. They believe that peace should rest upon the rights of the people, not the rights of governments….The word of an ambitious and intriguing government on the one hand and a group of free peoples on the other….We cannot take the word of the present rulers of Germany as a guaranty of anything that is to endure, unless explicitly supported by such conclusive evidence of the will and purpose of the German people themselves.”
Pope Benedict’s attempt to stop the war which would kill 9.4 million and open the Age of Totalitarianism ended with this rejection. The Entente Powers allowed Wilson to speak for them. As the great biographer of Pope Benedict XV, Walter Peters, states, “Wilson could not endorse Benedict’s plan because the prime premises of the two men differed so radically. Wilson was motivated by an urge to punish. In Wilson’s opinion, it was absolutely necessary that the ruling dynasties of Germany and Austria be forced to abdicate.”
Pope Benedict XV told one of his friends that it was the bitterest moment of his life when he heard of the rejection of the Note by Woodrow Wilson.
1918: Why The War Ended
When considering the failure of the peace initiatives of the Holy Father and others, we can understand why the war did not end. But why did it end? Did the Germans lose? Yes and No. According to the most recent historians of the period, it was the collapse of German morale on the Western Front, which brought about the defeat of Germany and Austria in the Great War.
Even after the failure of Ludendorff’s famous Michael Offensive in the Spring of 1918, the Germans and Austrians were still killing the Allies at a faster rate than they themselves were getting killed by the British and French (Note, the US Army was on the Western Front in substantial number only in the Autumn of 1918).
In the last 3 months of the fighting, for example, 63,500 British soldiers were killed, while 28,000 Germans were killed. It was not the Germans who elected to continue fighting who brought about the collapse of the Central Powers, it was those Germans who elected to surrender – or desert, shirk or strike – who ended the war.
This becomes clear, even by looking at the basic casualty count for the entire war 1914-1918: 9.4 million total casualties, 4 million dead from the Central Powers and 5.4 million dead from the Entente.
Most of the surrendering occurred at the end of the war, from August 1918 when General Ludendorff first started asking for an armistice and the second week of November when Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and went into exile in Holland. Probably the greatest chance Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy had of winning the struggle, was if Emperor Nicholas II had accepted, as early as 1915, a separate peace offer from the Germans and Austrians.
The Central Monarchies might well have won the war early and Russia would almost certainly have avoided Communism. When the Russians spurned these advances, the Germans went on to inflict total defeat on them, making the triumph of Communism possible. In 1919, the Versailles Conference met without the attendance of a representative of the Holy See.
Just as the Versailles Treaty was the first one since the early years of Christendom not to invoke the Holy Trinity, the Father of Christendom would have no place at the table which would profoundly rearrange the map of Europe. As Emperor Franz Josef stated at the end of his life, “Europe is dead.” It was the tragic fate of Pope Benedict XV, the man who loved Europe most, to weep at her tomb.
Peter Chojnowski is a professor, writer and currently teaches at Immaculate Conception Academy in Post Falls, Idaho.
The image shows, “Kaiser’s Got The Blues,” cover or sheet music from 1918.
Paraguay, it turns out, owes much to Russia. Thanks largely to a few dozen Russian officers, the country emerged victorious in an almost unwinnable war, and doubled its territory in the process.
The Chaco War (1932-1935) between Bolivia and Paraguay was the bloodiest conflict in Latin America, in which well-over 100,000 lives were lost. It was also the first air-war fought in South America. It is a war little remembered now. A key role in the hostilities was played by Russian and German émigré officers on the two warring sides. It was, in effect, a continuation of WWI on another continent.
For decades, Paraguay and Bolivia had bickered over the vast region of Gran Chaco. Both considered it as its own, yet neither risked an open confrontation. That was until 1928, when geologists claimed that this sparsely populated, impassable territory could be a source of oil.
Asuncion and La Paz (the administrative capital of Bolivia) were soon at each other’s throats. And oil companies added literal fuel to the metaphorical fire. The sworn enemies Standard Oil (a U.S. company supporting Bolivia) and Royal-Dutch Shell (an Anglo-Dutch company backing Paraguay) saw great prospects in Gran Chaco.
The first clash occurred between a Paraguayan cavalry detachment and Bolivian police in August 1928. All-out war was prevented only through the intervention of the League of Nations. Four years later, however, the organization was powerless to do anything. On June 15, 1932, the Bolivian army launched a surprise attack on Paraguayan outposts in the disputed territory.
Tiny Paraguay seemed to have little hope against the far mightier Bolivia. Not only was the latter’s manpower 3.5 times larger, but just 60 years previously Paraguay had endured a brutal war against Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, which claimed the lives of up to 70% of its male population.
Moreover, the Bolivian armed forces had three times as much air power and an overwhelming advantage in terms of armored vehicles. The Paraguayans could not field a single armored vehicle against the Vickers Mk E light tanks and Carden Lloyd VI tankettes of Bolivia. Only in respect of artillery guns was a certain parity maintained.
In this dire situation, only a miracle could save the country, and one duly arrived in the form of several dozen Russian officers who had left their homeland after the Russian Civil War and found a new home across the ocean.
One of the émigré officers, Lieutenant General Nikolai Stogov, wrote: “There seems not to be a single area of military affairs that our Russian émigré officers in Paraguay have not contributed to in terms of know-how and experience.”
Even before the conflict began, realizing the invaluable experience of the Russian officers, Paraguay’s leadership actively engaged them in modernizing both the armed forces and the country as a whole. “Russian émigrés were a boon to Paraguay, which needed to restore its shaky economy. Bridges, roads, administrative buildings, barracks, etc. all started to be built. The country gradually came to life thanks to the help of Russian technical personnel,” said Russian architect Georges Benois, who visited Asuncion in the 1920s.
It was Russian advisers who insisted on adopting the Danish Madsen machine gun, which the Tsarist cavalry had used in WWI. It was far more effective and reliable than the Chauchat machine gun, which the French military mission gave the Paraguayans.
Thanks to the Russians, in 1932, Paraguay created its first cavalry division. In this regard, it outpaced Bolivia, where such a formation appeared only two years later. The Paraguayan cavalry was trained to carry out blitz raids on the enemy rear, and Major Nikolai Korsakov even translated Russian cavalry songs into Spanish to instill military spirit.
Meanwhile, 120 German officers had settled in Bolivia and were now serving in the national army, which had been remodeled along German lines and dressed in the uniform of the Reichswehr. WWI veteran officer Hans Kundt was appointed commander-in-chief, arrogantly asserting that he would easily deal with the Russians (meaning the Paraguayan army).
At that time, 86 Russian émigrés were serving in the ranks of the Paraguayan armed forces. Despite their small number, most were officers with invaluable combat experience, and almost all proved their considerable worth in their respective area of expertise.
Having completed 13 reconnaissance trips to Gran Chaco, General Ivan Belyaev had vast experience as both a cartographer of the region and an artilleryman. And as the head of the cartographic unit of the General Staff and adviser to the Paraguayan president, he was heavily involved in planning the offensive and defensive operations of the Paraguayan army.
Thanks to the deciphering of the Bolivian military codes at the very start of the war by the head of Paraguay’s military intelligence, Nikolai Ern, and Captain Sergei Kern, the Paraguayan military secured an invaluable advantage. They often knew about the enemy’s intentions before the Bolivian troops had even received their orders.
A major role in the organization of the Paraguayan air defenses was played by aviator Captain Sergei Schetinin. Through his efforts, Bolivian aviation became far more potent. On his advice, the Paraguayans created dummy artillery, which the Bolivian planes wastefully bombarded.
The culmination of the Bolivian-Paraguayan (as well as Russian-German) Chaco War was the second battle of Nanawa (a suburb of Asuncion) in July 1933. In this operation, Kundt concentrated 6,000 of his Bolivian men against 3,600 Paraguayans.
Under the cover of German-crewed tanks, led by a detachment of flamethrowers, the Bolivians advanced on the Paraguayan army’s positions. Thanks to the solid defenses set up by the Russian military experts (fortified areas equipped with mortars and machine guns, surrounded by minefields and barbed wire), eight enemy attacks were repelled, followed by a successful counterattack. The Bolivian army lost several tanks and around 2,000 men, against Paraguayan losses of just 448. Shortly after the failed operation, Kundt was removed from his post.
The following year, after several major victories, Paraguay finally gained the strategic upper hand. When its armed forces entered Bolivia, the latter turned to the League of Nations for assistance in concluding a peace. Under the 1935 peace treaty, Paraguay received most of Gran Chaco, which almost doubled its territory. In an evil twist of irony, oil was discovered in the valley only 77 years later, in 2012.
The Paraguayans praised the Russian officers for their vital role in the Chaco War. The future president of Paraguay, Alfredo Stroessner, who had served under General Stepan Vysokolyan, had deep respect for both his commander and the entire Russian officer corps, calling them “people of honor.”
After the war, many of these Russian émigrés received all kinds of awards, were proclaimed national heroes, and occupied high positions in the country. To this day, six streets in Asuncion are named after the six Russian officers who were killed in the Chaco War.
How Ivan Belyaev Became Juan Belaieff (1875–1957)
Belyaev lost everything in his homeland after the Bolshevik revolution, so he moved to Latin America, chasing his childhood dreams – and became Juan Belaieff, Paraguay’s national hero.
Imagine your country just had a terrible civil war and the side you fought for lost. Your land is occupied by communists who killed your friends; you have nothing and are forced out to foreign lands. What would you do?
That’s the question all the officers and soldiers of the anti-Bolshevik White Army had to answer in the 1920s, after losing in the Russian Civil War of 1918-1922. Some settled down in Europe or the U.S., becoming successful bourgeois. Those less successful had to work as butlers or taxi drivers; some succumbed to alcoholism or committed suicide.
But General Ivan Timofeevich Belyaev (better known as Juan Belaieff), a hero of World War I and old-school Russian imperial officer, had a far more impressive and adventurous fate than any other emigre. He moved to Paraguay and tried to build a second home for Russian émigrés there, at the same time studying the South American Indians and becoming their hero. How so?
“My fate was decided by a completely minor event,” Belyaev wrote in his autobiography, Notes of a Russian Exile. “As a child, having a stroll with my aunt in St. Petersburg, I noticed a small book at a book market, with a picture of an Indian, named The Last of the Mohicans.”
After reading that adventure novel and many other, far more serious, stories, touching upon customs and civilization of American Indians, little Belyaev completely fell in love with this theme, becoming interested in Indians for the rest of his life. “Each night I was praying for my Indians,” he recalled of his childhood. Yet, it would take several decades and Russia’s national disaster to make Belyaev actually meet Indians. He had another career ahead of him – born to a family where all men were in military service, Belyaev became an artillerist and devotedly served Russia.
By the time World War I began in 1914, Belyaev held a rank of colonel. When hearing the news that Russia had declared war on Austro-Hungary and Germany, he reacted simply: “Long live Russia, death to her enemies!” and headed to the front to fight.
“Artillery is a mother of a child who got sick,” he used to say. “We are to watch our infantry close, listen to its pulse, being always ready to help it.” Loved by his soldiers, Belyaev was a classic Russian officer of his time, conservative and brave.
At war, the colonel survived many dangers, but once – only by chance. A bullet came through his chest but didn’t reach his spine or guts. Wounded Belyaev was transferred to a hospital near Petrograd, where he met Empress Alexandra Fedorovna and was promoted to general. After recovery, Belyaev headed back to the front-line.
In his memoirs, Belyaev admitted that despite the bravery and efforts of the Russian army, by 1917, Russia was too exhausted with the war, losing its best sons. “The last of the decent drowned in a sea of blood, the last impulse to fight burned out,” he wrote. The chaos of revolutions made Russian people turn their weapons against each other – at first Belyaev refused to fight against Russians but then his monarchist views prevail.
The White Army lost the war. In the 1920s, Belyaev, as well as many other soldiers and officers, sailed away from the shores of Russia. Along with his family, he moved to Europe, but didn’t stay there either. He decided to find a new home in Latin America.
In the 1920s, Russian émigrés in Paris could find a strange Russian-language newspaper called Paraguay, published in France by Belyaev. Each issue read on the front page: “Europe failed the Russian hope. Paraguay is a country to build a future in.” The general called on his compatriots to go to Paraguay and help him to, basically, build a new small Russia there. As for him, he had already been living in Paraguay since 1924, and was known as, Juan Belaieff.
Why Paraguay? Even by Latin America’s standards, that poor and underpopulated country was hardly a popular destination – but that’s why the local authorities welcomed immigration. Ever since losing the Paraguayan War of 1864-1870 to the alliance of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, Paraguay remained weak and lacked military force – and inviting some Russian officers was a good option for the government.
Belaieff, along with 12 other White Army officers, entered Paraguayan military service in 1924, joining the General Staff. His interests, however, lied beyond just military – in Paraguay he became a scientist.
Belaieff led 13 expeditions to the Gran Chaco, a vast area in West Paraguay populated by indigenous Maká people. “They spoke their own languages and hardly communicated with the other Paraguayans,” historian Boris Martynov, author of Russian Paraguay, notes. Belaieff, fascinated by Indians since his childhood, immediately established close ties with them, helping with supplies and clothes, studying their ancient culture, opening schools and even theaters.
Paradoxically, the Russian officer became a bridge uniting the Maká with their more-Westernized compatriots. The Indians adored Belaieff, calling him the ‘White Father’.
Even though he enjoyed his communication with the Maká, Belaieff had bigger plans. “I’d like to find a corner where everything sacred that created eternal holy Russia could be preserved, as Noah’s Ark did during the flood until better times,” he recalled. With his help, several Russian settlements were founded in Paraguay, but Russian migration to the country didn’t become widespread, and internal conflicts condemned the idea of some kind of “new Russia” in Latin America.
Though disappointed, Belaieff considered Paraguay his second home and, along with many Russian officers, gladly supported it in the Chaco war of 1932-1935, when neighboring Bolivia attacked Paraguay. Wounded and infected with malaria, Belaieff could have died a dozen times – but he survived and his side, though outnumbered, prevailed, with the help of the Maká, who were loyal to Belaieff.
He never returned to Russia, living out the rest of his long life in Paraguay. When he died, the Maká transported his body to their area and kept it in a mausoleum, worshipping the spirit of the White Father as a deity. A fellow Russian émigré officer in Paraguay said to a friend about Belaieff: “We, perhaps, will be forgotten after we die, but not him.”
The Society for Itinerant Art Exhibitions
was registered in 1870 and lasted until 1923. It was the first independent
exhibition association of Russian artists. Its first exhibition, with 16
participating artists, was held in 1871. In the years of its existence, the
society staged a total of 48 exhibitions, not just in Moscow and St.
Petersburg, but also in other cities within the Russian Empire.
One of the main reasons for the founding
of the society was the artists’ desire to acquire financial independence from
the Academy of Arts, which essentially had a monopoly on the sale of paintings
via its exhibitions. In turn, financial independence gave the artists the right
not just to earn an income by “cutting out the middleman”, but also to decide
on the subjects of their paintings themselves.
In the 19th century, the
Russian Academy of Arts was a conservative institution which prioritized the
portrayal of mythological, biblical and historical subjects. The young artists
wanted to show scenes from contemporary life and preferred “realism” to myths
The precursors of the Peredvizhniki(known in English as The Wanderers or The Itinerants) were artists from the St. Petersburg Artel [“Cooperative”] of Artists. In 1863, fourteen students from the Academy of Arts had submitted a petition demanding to independently choose the subjects for their diploma works. The petition was turned down by the academy’s authorities.
Subsequently, the students refused to take part in the annual gold medal competition and left the academy. The “rebels”, led by Ivan Kramskoi, set up an art artel along commune lines. From the new artel, participants – members of the Society for Itinerant Art Exhibitions – inherited a policy of independence and confrontation with the Academy of Arts.
Art critic Vladimir Stasov was the ideologist of the society. In 1882, he proclaimed that “nationalism and realism” were the group’s main principles. Stasov passionately opposed the provincial and imitative nature of Russian art of the first half of the 19th century and dreamed of Russian art occupying a worthy place alongside European art.
Stasov essentially formulated
the ideological platform of the new school of Russian art, urging artists to
turn to scenes from Russian contemporary life that often contained social
Enlightenment was another key goal pursued by the Peredvizhniki. Their exhibitions introduced the metropolitan and provincial public to the latest movements in art. According to the artist Nikolai Yaroshenko, the Peredvizhniki’s dream was “to take art out of the inaccessible palaces in which it was the domain of the few and make it the domain of all”.
One of the rules of the Peredvizhniki’s exhibitions,
which to a large extent ensured their success, was the requirement that artists
should exhibit only new paintings that had not been shown anywhere else before.
Essentially, the Peredvizhniki formed
the first private commercial art venture, independent of state patronage. The
artists’ income was determined by selling exhibitions organized in different
cities. The artists considerably expanded the market for their works by also
displaying them in provincial towns.
The sale of entrance tickets to
exhibitions was another considerable part of their income. Each artist donated
5 percent from the sale of their work to the society’s pooled funds, which were
used to cover the costs of mounting exhibitions.
Collector and philanthropist Pavel Tretyakov supported the society, not just by buying pictures for his gallery at itinerant exhibitions, but also by commissioning original work from artists.
In 1878, Ilya Repin joined the society. Exhibitions of his paintings were almost always accompanied by scandal. His work Religious Procession in Kursk Governorate was seen as a “squalid attack on all sections of Russian society”, They Did Not Expect Him was described as a “pseudo-liberal denunciation and protest” and in front of Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivanladies just fainted. The latter painting was banned from being exhibited by imperial decree – and because of Repin’s “gory” works, all art exhibitions in Russia were subject to censorship from 1885.
By 1923, the society ceased to exist. Over
the years of its existence, its members were often involved in conflicts with
one another. Ilya Repin, who twice left the group and then returned, accused
his associates of suffering from a bureaucratic mindset. Nikolai Ge, Arkhip
Kuindzhi and Viktor Vasnetsov all left the association. In 1901, 11 members
left, including Valentin Serov, Mikhail Nesterov and Victor Vasnetsov.
The society’s board eventually began to pursue a conservative policy, not really encouraging young artists to get involved, and, with many leading lights of the society having left the art scene, in the end the activities of the Society for Itinerant Art Exhibitions petered out.
If Winston Churchill was a vehement opponent of Soviet Russia, his cousin Clare Sheridan, on the contrary, was one of its biggest supporters. That in Britain was unforgivable.
“I am not a Bolshevik. But I have tried to understand the spirit of Communism and it interests me overwhelmingly,” wrote Winston Churchill’s cousin Clare Sheridan in her diary, published as Russian Portraits, during a trip to Soviet Russia in 1920.
The British counterintelligence agency MI5, however, was not so sure. They believed that this relative of one of the most influential people in Britain was a Bolshevik spy.
Being the cousin of War Minister Winston Churchill was not Clare Sheridan’s only accolade. She was a famous sculptor in her own right, and it was her professional activities that took her to the capital of Soviet Russia.
Having met with representatives of a Soviet trade delegation in London in 1920, Clare admitted to having a lifelong love for Russian literature, music, dance, and art; she was promptly invited to visit Russia.
However, at the time it was very difficult for a British subject to do so. The Entente’s intervention in Russia had only just ended, and some British troops remained in Crimea, the last stronghold of the White armies. Moreover, Britain itself, despite opening trade talks, was in no hurry to officially recognize Soviet Russia.
Visiting the land of the Bolsheviks was viewed as utter madness, but Sheridan cared little for public opinion. Via Stockholm and Tallinn, “this wild cousin of mine” (as Churchill put it) set off for Moscow.
Clare was greeted in Russia as an honorary guest. For two months she lived inside the Kremlin, strolled around the streets of Moscow, visited theaters, observed the lives of ordinary people, and marveled at what she saw: “Why am I happy here, shut off from all I belong to? What is there about this country that has always made everyone fall under its spell?”
“Why are these people, who have less education, so much more cultured than we are? The galleries of London are empty. In the British Museum one meets an occasional German student. Here the galleries and museums are full of working people. London provides revues and plays of humiliating mediocrity, which the educated classes enjoy and applaud. Here the masses crowd to see Shakespeare,” she wrote in her diary.
Clare talked a lot to Muscovites, took pictures, and made notes: “Now for the first time I feel morally and mentally free… I love this place and all the people in it. I love the people I have met, and the people who pass by me in the street. I love the atmosphere laden with melancholy, with sacrifice, with tragedy. I am inspired by this Nation, purified by Fire. I admire the dignity of their suffering and the courage of their belief.”
Nevertheless, she didn’t forget why she had come to the Soviet capital in the first place. Sheridan’s sculptural portraits of Bolshevik leaders included Zinoviev, Kamenev, Dzerzhinsky, Trotsky, and, of course, Lenin.
She even got to have a private conversation with the “leader of the Russian revolution.” Vladimir Lenin jokingly reproached her for being related to “the man with all the force of the capitalists behind him.” In response, Clare remarked that her other cousin was a member of the Irish left-wing party Sinn Fein. Laughing, Lenin replied: “That must be a cheerful party when you three get together.”
At home in Britain, Clare was greeted with a coldness verging on hostility. She effectively became persona non grata in high society, and even Churchill refused to communicate with her, at least temporarily.
Despite Sheridan’s protestations that she was far removed from politics, the British were outraged by her unprecedented trip, friendship with the Bolsheviks, and support for Russia.
MI5, in particular, paid close attention to the British war minister’s cousin. The agency could not overlook Clare’s ambiguous remarks about Russia and Russians: “I should like to live among them forever, or else work for them outside, work and fight for the Peace that will heal their wounds.”
Under intense public scrutiny, Sheridan was forced to leave Britain. She set off on an incredible round-the-world trip, which included an affair with Charlie Chaplin in the US, meeting Mussolini in Switzerland, and hearing the speeches of the young Hitler in Germany. Everywhere she went, MI5 agents followed on her heels.
In 1925 field operatives discovered that Sheridan had handed over details of a conversation with Churchill (then Chancellor of the Exchequer) about foreign policy to Daily Herald editor Norman Ewer, who was believed to be a Soviet agent.
Shortly thereafter, according to MI5, Sheridan’s finances quickly improved, suspiciously so. After a decade of money trouble, she went to Algeria, having paid off all her debts. British intelligence suspected a Russian hand in it.
“In view of the facts regarding her financial position [we] are strongly of the opinion that Clare is in the pay of the Russians and that she has been sent to North Africa to get in touch with the local situation and to act either as a reporting agent or possibly as a forwarding agent,” read the MI5 report.
MI5 repeatedly shared its suspicions about Sheridan with Churchill, but he always chose to ignore them. More than that, with WW2 now in play, Clare and Winston finally reconciled their differences, letting bygones be bygones.
Clare Sheridan passed away in 1970 at the ripe old age of 84. No case was ever brought against her.
In September 1939, Count Friedrich-Werner von der Schulenburg, a 63-year-old German diplomat serving as ambassador to the Soviet Union, couldn’t have been happier. Germany and the USSR had just signed a non-aggression treaty known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Schulenburg strongly believed that peace with Russia was crucial for Germany’s well-being.
“This is a diplomatic miracle… I hope that no circumstances will ruin the situation, which is just fine now. At least, we [the diplomats] fulfilled our task… I hope something good will come out of this!” he wrote emotionally to a friend after the pact was signed.
Unfortunately, nothing good was to come out of it in the end. On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany would violate the treaty, attacking the USSR with all its might, and all of Schulenburg’s efforts to prevent such an outcome were in vain. But why did such a man serve under Hitler in the first place
Schulenburg would likely have agreed with something Joseph Stalin’s said during World War II: “’Hitlers,’ they come and they go and the German nation will remain.” Schulenburg’s diplomatic service began in 1901, long before the Nazis came to power. A descendant of an old noble family, he worked as a diplomat his entire adult life with just one break to fight in World War I, for which he received an Iron Cross for bravery. Governments changed, but Schulenburg worked professionally with all of them.
He served as ambassador to Iran from 1922-1931 and then to Romania from 1931-1934, but the real challenge for him came when he was appointed to Moscow in 1934. While Schulenburg was no Russophile, he did share Otto von Bismark’s belief that in order to preserve its strength and abundance Germany must stay at peace with Russia.
“He attached a lot of importance to German-Soviet and German-Russian ties… For him, there was no alternative to the fruitful co-existence of those two great countries at peace,” Rüdiger von Fritsch, the German ambassador to Moscow, wrote in an article for Novaya Gazeta in 2014. However, since the Nazis were in charge of German foreign policy from 1933, maintaining good relations between Moscow and Berlin proved extremely difficult.
“No one else could represent Germany in the USSR in those hard times so sophisticatedly, with such caution and dignity, as Schulenburg,” noted Gustav Hilger, a German diplomat who worked in the Soviet embassy during the 1930s. Schulenburg did his best to reduce tension between the two countries in 1938-1939, as they were teetering on the brink of war.
In 1938, he reached an agreement with Maxim Litvinov (the Soviet foreign minister from 1930 – 1939) that the two countries would refrain from lambasting one other in the press. He also helped to prolong the trade treaty of 1938. But, as with any diplomat, Schulenburg couldn’t go beyond fulfilling orders from his government, and this is why he was so supportive of Germany and the USSR signing a non-aggression pact.
The thaw between the USSR and Nazi Germany was to be short-lived. In 1941, as new tensions emerged when Moscow rhetorically supported Yugoslavia following its invasion by Germany, new rumors of war filled the air. Schulenburg tried to address Hitler directly, writing him a note on how dangerous a Soviet-German war would be.
Hilger wrote the following in his memoirs: “On April 28, 1941, while on a work trip to Berlin, Schulenburg met Hitler in person. The ambassador saw his note lying on Hitler’s table, but he couldn’t tell if Hitler had read it. However, while saying goodbye, Hitler, pointed, unrelatedly to the previous conversation: ‘One more thing, Schulenburg. I am not going to go to war with Russia!’”
He lied. Schulenburg, though a de jure member of the Nazi Party, wasn’t a true Nazi and so Hitler didn’t trust him. As Joseph Goebbels, the German propaganda minister and Hitler’s close associate, would later write in his diary: “Our ambassador to Moscow had no idea Germany was going to attack… He insisted that the best policy would be making a friend and an ally out of Stalin… There is no doubt that not informing diplomats about our real intentions is the best policy possible.”
On June 22, 1941, Schulenburg came to the Kremlin to inform Vyacheslav Molotov, Litvinov’s successor as foreign minister, that war had begun – by this time, German troops had already stepped on Soviet soil without any declaration of war. The ambassador himself had just received the order from Berlin and felt absolutely crushed. While talking to Molotov, he “raised his hands towards the sky with an expression of powerlessness on his face,” Hilger remembered.
Schulenburg had to leave Moscow once the war broke out. He served in the foreign ministry in Berlin from 1941-1944, leading the Russia Committee, a formal post without any political influence. Not surprisingly, he was dissatisfied with Hitler and his policies.
This dissatisfaction led the old diplomat to join the ranks of the German anti-Nazi resistance. In 1944, by which time it was clear Germany was losing the war, several high-ranking officers and officials hatched a plot to assassinate Hitler. Schulenburg’s participation in the plot was minor, but he could have played an important role had it succeeded – several sources named him as possible foreign minister. The assassination attempt was not successful, however, and Schulenburg, like many other conspirators, was executed.
Although Schulenburg’s career was abruptly terminated, his wisdom and principles were praised in post-Nazi Germany. As Ambassador Fritsch writes, “If you visit Germany’s embassy in Moscow, you will meet Ambassador Schulenburg: His monument stands in the chancellery and his portrait hangs in the ambassador’s residence, next to the portrait of his great predecessor Otto von Bismark… Schulenburg’s personality and his principles serve witness: He deserves such a memory.”
Any conversation about the Gulag would be unthinkable without Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, for he was the first in the USSR to introduce the topic to the public.
The risky publication of his short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in the literary magazine New World in 1962 became a bombshell. Previously, the topic of Stalin’s camps had not been raised in public although it had – of course – touched almost every family in the country.
In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the protagonist, a peasant, recalls how he went to fight the Germans, was captured, escaped, and was immediately sent to the camps. That was how the Stalinist regime treated anyone who had fallen into German captivity: they were viewed as spies or deserters. The book also offers vivid descriptions of the hardships of everyday life in the labor camps.
Those who want to study the topic more deeply and get a broader picture of the scale of Stalin’s camps should read Solzhenitsyn’s magnum opus The Gulag Archipelago, which he himself called an experiment in artistic research.
Varlam Shalamov foresaw the appearance of a large number of memoirs and non-fiction works about this terrible period of Soviet history. He believed that authenticity would become the main strength of the literature of the future. In a dry and succinct manner, as if through the eyes of a documentary filmmaker, Shalamov writes about prisoners’ backbreaking work, awful and scant food, beatings and the terrible cold of Kolyma. Behind these daily observations, there are the writer’s ruminations about human beings and the value of life. His bleak writing style penetrates deeply into readers’ consciousness and this document about the Gulag may turn out to be more affecting than any work of art.
“Backbreaking work inflicted irreparable wounds on us, and our life in old
age will be a life of pain, endless and varied physical and mental pain.”
Here are some excerpts from
Shalamov’s short stories…
From, “The Carpenters”
“But the cold kept up, and Potashnikov knew he couldn’t hold out any longer. Breakfast sustained his strength for no more than an hour of work, and then exhaustion ensued. Frost penetrated the body to the ‘marrow of the bone’ — the phrase was no metaphor. A man could wave his pick or shovel, jump up and down so as not to freeze — till dinner. Dinner was hot — a thin broth and two spoons of kasha that restored one’s strength only a little but nevertheless provided some warmth. And then there was strength to work for an hour, and after that Potashnikov again felt himself in the grip of the cold. The day would finally come to a close, and after supper all the workers would take their bread back to the barracks, where they would eat it, washing it down with a mug of hot water. Not a single man would eat his bread in the mess hall with his soup. After that Potashnikov would go to sleep.
He slept, of course, on one of the upper berths, because the lower ones were like an ice cellar. Everyone who had a lower berth would stand half the night at the stove, taking turns with his neighbors in embracing it; the stove retained a slight remnant of warmth. There was never enough firewood, because to go for it meant a four-kilometer walk after work and everyone avoided the task. The upper berths were warmer, but even so everyone slept in his working clothes — hats, padded coats, pea jackets, felt pants. Even with the extra warmth, by the morning a man’s hair would be frozen to the pillow.
Potashnikov felt his strength leaving him every day. A thirty-year-old man, he had difficulty in climbing on to an upper berth and even in getting down from it. His neighbor had died yesterday. The man simply didn’t wake up, and no one asked for the cause of death, as if there were only one cause that everyone knew.”
From, “In the Night”
“Are you a doctor?” asked Bagretsov, sucking the wound.
Glebov remained silent. The time when he had been a doctor seemed very far away. Had it ever existed? Too often the world beyond the mountains and seas seemed unreal, like something out of a dream. Real were the minute, the hour, the day — from reveille to the end of work. He never guessed further, nor did he have the strength to guess. Nor did anyone else.
He didn’t know the past of the people who surrounded him and didn’t want to know. But then, if tomorrow Bagretsov were to declare himself a doctor of philosophy or a marshal of aviation, Glebov would believe him without a second thought. Had he himself really been a doctor? Not only the habit of judgment was lost, but even the habit of observation. Glebov watched Bagretsov suck the blood from his finger but said nothing. The circumstance slid across his consciousness, but he couldn’t find or even seek within himself the will to answer.
We tried to work, but our lives were too distant from anything that could be expressed in figures, wheelbarrows, or percent of plan. The figures were a mockery. But for an hour, for one moment after that night’s dinner, we got our strength back.
And suddenly I realized that that night’s dinner had given the sectarian the strength he needed for his suicide. He needed that extra portion of kasha to make up his mind to die. There are times when a man has to hurry so as not to lose his will to die.
As usual, we encircled the stove. But today there was no one to sing any hymns. And I guess I was even happy that it was finally quiet.
From, “Dry Rations”
We were all tired of barracks food. Each time they brought in the soup in large zinc tubs suspended on poles, it made us all want to cry. We were ready to cry for fear that the soup would be thin. And when a miracle occurred and the soup was thick, we couldn’t believe it and ate it as slowly as possible. But even with thick soup in a warm stomach there remained a sucking pain; we’d been hungry for too long. All human emotions — love, friendship, envy, concern for one’s fellow man, compassion, longing for fame, honesty — had left us with the flesh that had melted from our bodies during their long fasts…
“Just imagine,” said Savelev. “We’ll survive, leave for the mainland, and quickly become sick old men. We’ll have heart pains and rheumatism, and all the sleepless nights, the hunger, and long hard work of our youth will leave their mark on us even if we remain alive. We’ll be sick without knowing why, groan and drag ourselves from one dispensary to another. This unbearable work will leave us with wounds that can’t be healed, and all our later years will lead to lives of physical and psychological pain. And that pain will be endless and assume many different forms. But even among those terrible future days there will be good ones when we’ll be almost healthy and we won’t think about our sufferings. And the number of those days will be exactly equal to the number of days each of us has been able to loaf in camp.”
From, “A Child’s Drawings”
We finished the work, stacked the wood, and waited for the guards. Our guard was keeping warm in the building for which we’d been chopping wood, but we were supposed to march back in formation, breaking up in town into smaller groups.
We didn’t go to warm up, though, since we had long since noticed, next to a fence, a large heap of garbage — something we could not afford to ignore. Both my companions were soon removing one frozen layer after another with the adroitness that comes from practice. Their booty consisted of lumps of frozen bread, an icy piece of hamburger, and a torn pair of men’s socks. The socks were the most valuable item, of course, and I regretted that I hadn’t found them first. “Civvies” — socks, scarves, gloves, shirts, pants — were prized by people who for decades had nothing to wear but convict garb. The socks could be darned and exchanged for tobacco or bread.
From, “The Red Cross”
The evil acts committed by criminals in camp are innumerable. The unfortunates are those from whom the thief steals their last rags, confiscates their last coin. The working man is afraid to complain, for he sees that the criminals are stronger than the camp authorities. The thief beats the working man and forces him to work. Tens of thousands of people have been beaten to death by thieves. Hundreds of thousands of people who have been in the camps are permanently seduced by the ideology of these criminals and have ceased to be people. Something criminal has entered into their souls for ever. Thieves and their morality have left an indelible mark on the soul of each.
The camp administrator is rude and cruel; the persons responsible for propaganda lie; the doctor has no conscience. But all this is trivial in comparison with the corrupting power of the criminal world. In spite of everything, the authorities are still human beings, and the human element in them does survive. The criminals are not human.
The influence of their morality on camp life is boundless and many-sided. The camps are in every way schools of the negative. No one will ever receive anything useful or necessary from them — neither the convict himself, nor his superiors, nor the guard, nor the inadvertent witnesses (engineers, geologists, doctors), nor the camp administrators, nor their subordinates.
Female authors who went through the camps are less well known. One of the more notable is Eufrosinia Kersnovskaya: she accompanied her memoirs with drawings – simple, child-like images, but for that reason even more terrifying.
Kersnovskaya possessed incredible strength, both physical and mental, and asked to be given men’s work – she even worked in a mine. Her story is amazing: she managed to escape and survived in the taiga when her only food was a frozen piece of horse-meat.
She describes, without embellishment, the most terrible things that were going on in the Gulag, the lowly position occupied by women prisoners and what many of them were prepared to do in order to survive.
The title of her book reflects her
attempts to understand under what conditions a person can lose their essential
Present-day writers too turn to the topic of the Gulag. For example, one of Russia’s leading authors, Zakhar Prilepin, sent his hero to a camp on the Solovetsky Islands – the very same Gulag archipelago.
This major novel is based on
thorough archival research. The author made numerous trips to the Solovetsky
Islands, working in the archives there. He offers an extremely accurate
depiction of the head of the camp, as well as the entire camp structure – from
prison cells made out of former monastic cells and wooden bunks in churches to
punishment cells set up in remote monastic retreats.
Prilepin also portrays different groups of inmates – political prisoners and ordinary criminals rubbed shoulders in these camps.
This is another contemporary novel
on our list, the debut novel by writer Guzel Yakhina, which became a bestseller
in Russia and has already been translated into 10 languages. It tells not so
much the story of the Gulag itself as of the Stalin-era repressions, namely the
dispossession of Tatar peasants and their deportation to Siberia.
The book’s heroine, together with a
group of prisoners, finds herself in the middle of the taiga under the escort
of one officer. They have to dig their own dugout, forage for food and fend off
the cold. But, strangely, in these circumstances, she feels a freer person than
when she was when oppressed by her husband and mother-in-law.
Although this is a work of fiction, but Yakhina studied archive materials about deportations to Siberia in Stalin’s times. In addition, her grandmother was among those dispossessed in the 1930s, and when depicting the everyday life of her characters, the author relied on her grandmother’s recollections.
The Battle of Berlin was the final large-scale military operation to
take place in Europe during World War II. The British and American allies did
not participate in this offensive, leaving the Soviet army to conquer the city
The Battle of Berlin was one of the largest battles in human history.
It began on April 16 in the outskirts of the city. By April 25, Soviet
troops had entered the Third Reich’s capital. About 3.5 million soldiers from
both sides participated in the fight with more than 50,000 weapons and 10,000
Soviet troops stormed Berlin while the rest of the Allied army remained more than 100 kilometers outside the German capital. In 1943, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt declared that “the U.S. must obtain Berlin.”
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed that the Nazi capital must not fall into Soviet hands. However, in the spring of 1945, these Allied forces did not make any effort to take possession of the city. British historian John Fuller called it “one of the strangest decisions ever made in military history.”
However, this decision had its motives. In an interview with RBTH, Russian historian Andrei Soyustov said that there were at least two reasons for this decision.
First, according to preliminary agreements, including the accords made in Yalta, Berlin was located in the zone of Soviet military operations. The demarcation line between the USSR and the other Allied forces went along the Elbe River. “Rushing into Berlin for the sake of status, could have, at minimum, backfired and may have resulted in a USSR decision not to fight against Japan,” explains the historian.
The second reason for not storming the giant urban center was that the Allies had been fraught with casualties as the end of the war approached. In the period between the Normandy landing and April 1945 the Allies “were able to avoid storming large cities,” Soyustov notes.
Soviet casualties in the Battle of
Berlin were indeed very high with 80,000 injured and at least 20,000 killed.
The German side suffered just as many losses.
Berlin was captured by Soviet troops on three fronts. The most difficult task fell to the soldiers from the First Belarus Front, commanded by Georgy Zhukov, who had to charge the well-fortified German position in Seelow Heights on the outskirts of the city.
The attack began during the night of April 16 with an unprecedentedly powerful and coordinated artillery barrage. Then, without waiting for morning, tanks entered the battle supported by the infantry.
The offensive was conducted with the help of floodlights, which were set up behind the advancing troops. Even with the use of this clever this tactic, several days were needed to seize Seelow Heights.
Initially, almost one million German servicemen were concentrated around Berlin. However, they were met by a Soviet force that was 2.5 times greater. At the very beginning of the Berlin operation, Soviet troops succeeded in cutting off the majority of the German units from the city.
Due to this, the Soviet Army encountered only a few hundred thousand German soldiers in Berlin itself, including the Volkssturm (the militia) and the Hitler Youth. There were also many SS units from different European countries.
Hitler’s troops worked desperately to defend themselves with two lines of defense organized in Berlin. Many homes were equipped with bunkers and these houses, with their thick walls, became impregnable strongholds.
Of particular danger for the advancing Soviet troops were the anti-tank weapons, bazookas and hand grenades since Soviet forces were heavily reliant on the use of armored vehicles during the attack. In this environment of urban warfare, many tanks were destroyed.
Following the war, commanders of the Soviet operation were often criticized for relying so heavily on the use of armored vehicles.
However, as emphasized by Soyustov, in such conditions the use of tanks was justified: “Thanks to the heavy use of armored vehicles, the Soviet army was able to create a very mobile unit of support for the advancing troops, which helped them break through the barricades into the city center.”
The tactics used in the Battle of Berlin built on experience from the Battle of Stalingrad. The Soviet troops established special assault units, in which tanks played a critical role.
Typically, maneuvers were carried out in the following manner: The infantry moved along both sides of the street, checking the windows on both sides, to identify obstacles that were dangerous for the vehicles, such as camouflaged weapons, barricades and tanks embedded in the ground.
If the troops noticed such impediments up ahead, the Soviet infantry would wait for the arrival of their self-propelled tanks and self-propelled howitzers, known as “Stalin’s sledgehammer.”
Once this support arrived, the armored vehicles would work to destroy German fortifications at point-blank range. However, there were situations where the infantry could not keep up with the armored vehicles and consequently, the tanks were isolated from their cover and became easy prey for the German anti-tank weapons and artillery.
The culmination of the offensive on Berlin was the battle for the Reichstag, the German parliament building. At the time, it was the highest building in the city center and its capture had symbolic significance.
The first attempt to seize the Reichstag on April 27 failed and the fight continued for four more days. The turning point occurred on April 29 as Soviet troops took possession of the fortified Interior Ministry building, which occupied an entire block. The Soviets finally captured the Reichstag on the evening of April 30.
Early in the morning of May 1, the
flag of the 150th Rifle division was raised over the building. This was later
referred to as the Banner of Victory.
On April 30, Adolf Hitler
committed suicide in his bunker. Until the last moment, Hitler had been hoping
that troops from other parts of Germany would come to his aid in Berlin, but
this did not happen. The Berlin troops surrendered on May 2.
Calculating the losses involved in the Battle of Berlin at the end of such a bloody war, some historians doubt whether the Soviet attack of the city was necessary.
In the opinion of historian and writer Yuri Zhukov, after the Soviet and American troops met at the Elbe river, surrounding the German units in Berlin, it was possible to do without the offensive on the Nazi capital.
“Georgy Zhukov… could have just tightened the blockade circle on an hourly basis… But for an entire week, he mercilessly sacrificed thousands of Soviet soldiers… He obtained the surrender of the Berlin garrison on May 2. But if this capitulation had occurred not on May 2 but, let’s say, on the 6th or the 7th, tens of thousands of our soldiers would have been saved,” Zhukov continues.
However, there are other opinions that contradict this view. Some researchers say that if the Soviet troops had just besieged the city, they would have lost the strategic initiative to the Germans.
Nazi attempts to break the blockade from the inside and outside would have resulted in just as many losses for the Soviet Army as the attack, claims Soyustov. It is also not clear how long such a blockade would have lasted.
Soyustov also says that delaying the Berlin operation could have resulted in political problems between the Allied forces.
It is no secret that towards the end of the war the Third Reich’s representatives tried to negotiate a separate peace deal with the Americans and British forces. “In these circumstances, no one would have been able to predict how a blockade of Berlin would have developed,” Soyustov is convinced.