As we know, history is one of the oldest sciences in the world. But the benefits of it are far from obvious and have been constantly questioned over the centuries. How was the question of the purpose of writing history, and the tasks of a historian, answered in the past?
Moses, who began compiling sacred history, did not use the concept of “history” itself – there was no need for it. For Moses, the story of creation, humanity, and the people of Israel was not some useful knowledge, but a proclamation to Israel of Israel’s purpose. God, leading the people out of Egypt, gives history to man as a vow of salvation.
Nevertheless, the emergence of history as scientific knowledge is usually associated with ancient tradition, and Herodotus is traditionally considered the first historian (5th century BC). Herodotus saw himself as a collector of “information” about “great and surprisingly worthy deeds” so that they “over time would not go into oblivion.” Herodotus (in his work The Histories, although this name is most likely later, for earlier the work was called The Muses) for the first time appears as an “historian” – an observer and narrator about the events that took place. The goal is not soteriological, but antiquarian.
But it is Thucydides (5th century BC) who introduces a more “scientific” task – he is engaged in “investigation.” In his Peloponnesian War he writes: “As for the events of this war, I set myself the task of describing them, receiving information not by questioning the first person I met and not at my personal discretion, but to depict, on the one hand, only those events, at which I myself happened to be present, and on the other – to analyze the messages of others with all possible accuracy. A thorough verification of the information was not easy, because the witnesses of individual events gave different coverage of the same facts, depending on their location to one of the warring parties or the strength of memory. My research, in the absence of everything fabulous in it, may seem unattractive. But if anyone wants to investigate the reliability of the past and the possibility of future events (which may someday be repeated by the property of human nature in the same or similar form), then it will be enough for me if he considers my research useful. My work was created as an eternal property, and not for momentary success with listeners.”
In other words, the benefits of history are pragmatic, avoiding mistakes in the future. It is also worth making a reservation here: history for ancient and later authors is not some kind of historical process, but a text, a story about events. Later, ancient authors were engaged in similar “investigations” (collection and analysis of information). For example, Aristotle (4th century BC) wrote The History of Animals, which became the basis for the creation of philosophical works on fauna: On the Parts of Animals, and On the Generation of Animals.
A step forward was made by the historian Polybius (2nd century BC), the author of The Histories. He believed that “knowledge of the past, rather than any other knowledge, can benefit people,” since “lessons learned from history most likely lead to enlightenment and prepare for engaging in public affairs,” and “the story of the trials of other people is the most intelligible, or the only mentor teaching us to courageously endure the vicissitudes of fate.”
It was Polybius who spoke about the “lessons of history,” which for him had a universal meaning and concerned every person. In addition, “diligent study of history, enriching us with this kind of experience, can beautify our leisure and provide us with entertainment.” Polybius thus not only raised history to the pedestal of human knowledge, but also gave it moral and entertainment value. The famous phrase of Cicero “history is the teacher of life” was already a repetition of Polybius’s thought. Subsequent ancient historians in different ways repeated what Polybius, Herodotus, and Thucydides said.
The first Christian historians interpreted their writings in an ancient context. Eusebius (4th century AD) wrote about “instructive lessons of history.” However, Sozomen (1st half of the 5th century AD) posed a more significant task: “Since for the reliability of history one must take special care of the truth, it seemed to me necessary to investigate these written monuments as much as possible… The narrator, as has been said, should do everything to serve the truth.” It is important to take into account that in Sozomen’s view truth was of divine origin, and history itself, in his words, is “not a human matter.”
Thus, already early Church historians were gradually beginning to bring their tasks closer to those that were characteristic of Moses. These principles were most clearly formulated by the blessed Theodoret of Cyrus (5th century): “Painters, depicting ancient events on panels and walls, of course, give pleasure to the viewers about what happened long ago; they keep that happening fresh in memory for a long time. But historians, instead of panels used books, and instead of paints – use the color of words, to make the memory of the past even stronger and firmer, because the painter’s art is worn down by time. Therefore, everything that has not yet been included in the history of the Church, I will try to describe: for indifference to the glory of famous deeds and oblivion of the most useful legends, I consider criminal.” He considered writing history to be a spiritual duty and a heroic deed.
The Christian West right up to the Renaissance retained the ancient understanding of history. However, from the end of the 17th century, with the emergence of science in Europe in the modern sense, an idea of the world historical process was formulated, which had its own clear and invariable laws.
Thus, there were the French Catholic Bishop Bossuet (Discourse on Universal History, 1681) and the Italian scientist Vico (Principles of a New Science Concerning the Nature of Nations, 1725) for whom the laws of history were a divine institution, like the laws of nature, and were associated with ethical norms. One way or another, for the first time, it became possible to talk about the “meaning of history,” with attempts to deduce it in the manner of a mathematical formula. Now history had begun to be understood rationally – and man became its hostage, a cog in a grandiose mechanism.
The Age of Enlightenment made its own adjustments here: it began to look at history as a self-developing process. Agnostic Lessing (The Education of the Human Race, 1780) spoke of historical progress and stages of religious and social development (by which he understood paganism, Judaism and Christianity).
Another inevitable conclusion from this idea was the thought of the pantheist Condorcet (Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Advances of the Human Mind, 1794): “If a person can, with almost complete certainty, predict the phenomena whose laws he knows, if even when they are unknown to him, he can, on the basis of past experience, predict, with a high probability, future events. Then why consider the desire to draw, with some plausibility. a picture of the future fate of the human race, based on the results of its history, as a chimerical enterprise?”
Historical science was already beginning to turn into an ideology and predict a happy future. True, Condorcet himself was sitting in a Jacobin prison, while he was writing his work, waiting for the guillotine.
After Hegel, who most clearly formulated the idea of a single historical process, the “philosophy of history,” which became the foundation of political ideology, blossomed in magnificent color. It was understood both in the materialistic “formational” aspect (Marx, Braudel) and in the idealistic “civilizational” one (Danilevsky, Spengler, Toynbee). More often, the first model was adopted by the Left (socialists and liberals), and the second – by the Right.
Later, the liberal “anti-philosophy” of history (Popper) was formulated, which generally denied any meaning in history and placed technical progress at the forefront. The circle of development of European thought was closed, and man was completely lost in the heap of “laws” and the whirlwind of “processes.” Historians, inspired by philosophers, and then experiencing some disappointment from the abundance of groundless schemes, went into “pure science” – into the study of small plots (so-called microhistory) or individual texts (postmodernism).
Perhaps the most profound criticism of the “philosophy of history” belongs to the outstanding theologian of the twentieth century, Archpriest Georges Florovsky. It was the identification of history with nature, in his opinion, that became the starting point of European utopianism.
Father Georges fundamentally opposed the idea of historical progress and human responsibility for history, a certain faceless “cosmic process” and personal “moral creativity.” Instead, history is to be understood as “the mystery of salvation and the tragedy of sin.” It has no other meaning. The historian is complicit in this dilemma because his work should be evidence of it. Proclaiming a “return to the fathers” in theology, Father Georges was faithful to them in his understanding of history and the tasks of a historian.
Following Moses, theologians of the 5th and 20th centuries spoke of history as an event centered on the communication of God and man, feat and salvation. Thus, human history rises above the laws of nature, goes beyond its inherent cyclicality and strict subordination to circumstances, gives each human action the status of unique and unconditionally significance. “If you are led by the spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal. 5:18). In this understanding, human history cannot be calculated, put into a mathematical formula, but only in this understanding does it acquire its true soteriological meaning.
Fedor Gaida is Associate Professor in the Faculty of History, Lomonosov Moscow State University. His research interests include, the political history of Russia at the beginning of the 20th century; Russian liberalism; power and society in a revolutionary era; Church and Revolution.
This month, we are greatly honored to present this interview with Professor Andrzej Nowak, a Polish historian and a public intellectual. He is a professor at the Institute of History, Jagiellonian University, Krakow, and is the head of the Comparative Imperial Studies Section at the Polish Academy of Sciences.
Professor Nowak has lectured as a visiting professor at Columbia University, Harvard University, Rice University, the University of Virginia, University of Cambridge, and University College, London. He is also a recipient of the Order of the White Eagle – Poland’s highest order.
He is the author of over 30 books, among them a multivolume history of Poland, Między nieładem a niewolą. Krótka historia myśli politycznej (Between Disorder and Captivity. A Short History of Political Ideas), Metamorfozy Imperium Rosyjskiego: 1721-1921 (Metamorphoses of Russian Empire), and History and Geopolitics: A Contest for Eastern Europe, Russia and Eastern Europe.
He is interviewed by Dr. Zbigniew Janowski, on behalf of the Postil.
Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): Thirty years ago, when we met, you were a scholar of Russia. You had published several books on the topic. They drew the attention of Andrzej Walicki and Richard Pipes, two well-known experts on Russian history. Now you are writing about the history of Poland. Thus far you have written four out of ten intended volumes. Could you briefly describe your intellectual trajectory? What made you leave Russian history?
Andrzej Nowak (AN): Indeed, my research interests began with an analysis of the concept of the multiplicity of civilizations by Nikolay Danilevsky, a contemporary of Dostoevsky, an ideologue of Russian Pan-Slavism. That was forty years ago.
In recent years, however, I have returned to the history of Russian imperial thought. In 2018, I published an extensive volume of studies on the manifestations of this thought in Russian culture, from the time of Peter the Great to the formation of the group of so-called Eurasianists during the First World War. I am still interested in Russian topics. Not only because it is fascinating in itself, but also because of its numerous connections with the history of Poland to the present day. For Russia, over the centuries, Poland has been the first obstacle on the way to Europe, leading to its subordination.
Marx expressed it succinctly in 1863, when he wrote that “the rebuilding of Poland meant the annihilation of (imperial) Russia, the cancellation of the Russian candidate for world rule” (“Wiederherstellung Polens ist die Vernichtung Rußlands, (die) Rußlands Absetzung von seiner Kandidatur zur Weltherrschaft”). The issue of neighboring Russia and its geopolitical significance has been my concern for a long time; and it is precisely the historical Russian-Polish relations and the comparison of two political cultures that have developed so differently in the two countries.
When it comes to the multi-volume history of Poland, for me it is an attempt to reread the specificity of Polish political culture, its rootedness in the European republican tradition (this issue has been discovered in recent years by such outstanding scholars as Quentin Skinner and Martin van Gelderen).
But has anyone pointed out that the term “Polish citizen” – civis Polonis – appears for the first time in a document from the mid-12th century? I found out about it while writing the first volume of my synthesis. Now that I am on volume five, which covers the 17th century, I wonder about the crisis of the republican system, as well as the geopolitical conditions of its duration (wars with Russia, Protestant Sweden, and Islamic Turkey).
Such issues give me a lot of intellectual pleasure – and also because they allow me to look at the present day, for example, of the European Union, from the point of view of the longest lasting union in the history of Europe: the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1385-1795). Why did this union end up being partitioned by its imperial neighbors? How did they use the mechanisms of republican freedom (veto, applied in the Polish parliamentary system until 1791)? These are not just historical issues. In each case, like a shadow, being a neighbor to Russia brings back the problem of the empire.
ZJ: Russia is fascinating. One reason is Russian literature: Pushkin, Lermontov, Chekov, Gogol, Pasternak, Bulgakov, and, above all, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. No nation, I dare say, can claim to have so many outstanding writers. Yet Dostoevsky stands out among them. He is not just a great writer but a great thinker; one of the most insightful critics of Modernity.
If you want to understand the cultural malaise of the West in the 20th century, you turn to Nietzsche, Ortega y Gasset and Dostoevsky. “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” lays out all the fundamental problems of political and social organization. It is a real tour de force of political theory, which, matches only Plato’s considerations in The Republic. Chapters 7 and 8 of Notes from Underground, on the other hand, is an unsurpassed analysis of the dangers of the nascent scientific mentality, the danger of which was described in the 1950s by Jacques Ellul in his The Technological Society. Aldous Huxley, on the other hand, turned Notes into his Brave New World (1932) – which describes a soft totalitarianism, the world which we seem to be building.
On the one hand, Dostoevsky is a great prophet, who saw the future of the West, a future where the scientific mentality dominated everything and discredited the Past (tradition, religion, hierarchy, custom, history); and, on the other hand, Dostoevsky is the Russian sui generis. He is suspicious of the West, Western ideas, Western Christianity, and, let me add, who passionately dislikes the Poles for Poland’s Western orientation and Catholicism.
Czeslaw Milosz saw Dostoevsky as someone from a backward country, who realized the danger that Western ideas posed, which were flooding Russia at the beginning of the 19th century. Dostoevsky’s literary output is a short history of modern Europe. Do you agree with Milosz? And what is your attitude toward Dostoevsky?
AN: The term “backward country” of course implies that there are “progressive” countries which are the yardstick for the rest of the world. Such an attitude was adopted by Dostoevsky himself, fascinated by the ideas of Saint-Simon and Fourier, which he got to know in the circle of the young intelligentsia in St. Petersburg. The death sentence he was given for participating in this circle, and then exile, certainly came as a shock.
When, after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War, the so-called “progressive countries” – Great Britain, France and Sardinia, saw a liberal “thaw” in domestic politics, so that Dostoevsky was no longer enthusiastic about following “progress.” He quickly saw that liberalism and the so-called the utopian socialism, which fascinated him earlier, had a common source. And it is a poisoned source – the belief that man can build a paradise on earth on his own, and that the West is close to this paradise; and countries such as Russia should intensely imitate the West, so that one day they may find themselves at least in the vestibule of this paradise.
Imitation of the West will end in the revolution of nihilism, the foretelling of which Dostoevsky already noticed in Russia. He described them in the form of two generations in Demons: the older generation – “rotten” liberals and the younger generation – radical revolutionists.
The same observations were made earlier by poets of the Polish Romantic emigration: Adam Mickiewicz and Zygmunt Krasiński. The latter, in the drama “the Undivine Comedy” of 1833, presented exactly the vision of total revolution as a rebellion against God, as Dostoevsky had done 40 years later. The difference is that for Krasiński, the criticism of the revolution and of the preceding evolution of Western civilization is an “internal” criticism – he mourns this crisis because it is his civilization. He would like to save it, like Joseph de Maistre; he would like the Polish nobility to support the collapsing dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome with their sabers.
Polish Romantic thinkers imagined that Poland could play the role of the last defender of the European classical and Christian moral tradition against the forces of decay.
On the other hand, Dostoevsky, along with a large part of the Russian intellectual elite, took a different perspective: the crisis arises from the very essence of the West, from the rebellion of the West (that is, Catholicism) against the only true faith that has been preserved by the Orthodox Church. This is the perspective of the criticism of the West that continues in Russian thought right up to Solzhenitsyn and contemporary ideologues of Putin’s era. There are also great Russian writers who refer to this tradition today, especially Zachar Prilepin, a contemporary Dostoevsky.
ZJ: However, one can raise the following argument: Poland, as a country, disappeared from the map of Europe in 1795. Polish nobility turned Poland into “a country for sale,” because they invented a political system that made the Polish state (and the regal power) weak. Its downfall was predicted by King Sobieski.
The idea that the Polish nobles can “support the collapsing dome” is – pardon me – a piece of rhetoric, which inscribes itself well within the context of the post-French Revolution world, but it misses the point. How could de Maistre think that one could entrust the fate of Christianity, Catholicism to the people who could not even manage the political affairs of their own country? If one looks for defense of Catholicism or Christianity, a better place than de Maistre, in my opinion, is Chateaubriand’s The Genius of Christianityand Constant essays on religion.
AN: Sorry for the misunderstanding. The vision of the Polish nobility supporting the collapsing dome of St. Peter was written by Zygmunt Krasiński, a Polish Romantic conservative. Yes, he was inspired by de Maistre’s political philosophy, but this was a vision of Krasiński, not of a Savoyard reactionary.
De Maistre saw, for a time, in tsarist Russia the hope of saving the European tradition, until he realized how much revolutionary fuel was in Russia itself. Krasiński’s vision assumed that the Polish nobility most consistently represented the traditions of Roman republicanism, combined with Latin Christianity. As a conservative, however, he considered original sin as the cause of the contamination of all worldly endeavors and projects. That is why he saw in the attitude of defending the traditions of European Christianity a heroic but futile act. Poland’s act is to defend a struggling Christian Europe desperately to the end, just as it fought desperately for the independence of the lost (also through its own fault) Poland. But she will win this fight alone. Only Providence can win this fight. We have a duty to fight; we have no guarantee of victory.
It seems to me that this attitude is absent both in Chateaubriand and in Constant. Their “bland,” more melancholic and cultural view of Christianity presents it as a beautiful adventure of the European past, which may be saved as a kind of museum monument in the modern world. Krasiński, on the other hand, sees the issue of Catholic Europe as a fundamental existential, dramatic choice – against “this world” created by the triumph of liberalism and capitalism.
This is a completely different kind of romanticism than the ethos found in Chateaubriand. I think more realistic – at least from today’s perspective. This does not mean, however, that I believe that “Polish nobility” or Poland simply had some unique opportunities to save tradition.
Poland itself is part of the European community of fate. People who consider themselves in some sense heirs of Krasiński, but also of John Paul II and Saint Faustina (a Polish nun who initiated the world cult of God’s Mercy), must look for those Germans who feel spiritual communion with Pope Ratzinger, those Italians who understand one’s identity in the spirit of the Catholic tradition; Spaniards who still know who Miguel de Unamuno was; the French who understand the choice of Pascal and Antoine de Saint-Exupery; The English who have in their spiritual heritage Thomas More, Cardinal John Henry Newman, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Chesterton. We are all in one boat and we will drown together, or we will keep on going together. We will reach the shore as Providence decides. We have a duty to row, in spite of those who want to sink our boat now.
ZJ: But the fate of a nation, unless we understand it in Oedipian sense, is not sealed. Fate of countries lies either in having a strong culture which gives a people a specific national identity – different from others – or strong political institutions capable of sustaining that culture.
Poland is a unique example. After more than eight centuries, it disappeared from the map of Europe at the very end of 18th century. What happened was more a result of the malfunctioning of political institutions than a lack of national identity, which, let us recall, was forged in the historical process since 966 AD, when Poland became a Christian country. Poland had elected kings and a republican system of government, which led to political weakness.
If you look at the American debate (the so-called The Federalist Papers) how such a new political system should work, the Founding Fathers (Madison and Hamilton) thought of the legislative process as an attempt to reconcile the conflicting interests that take place in a society at large. Representatives of the states are supposed to represent the general attitude of the people they represent; they do not have a mandate to act or vote in a predetermined way. They are not delegates!
The Polish republican experiment was exactly the opposite. It was based on, first, the unanimity principle and, second, the “imperative mandate.” What the result of it was that the Polish Diet was prevented from being a deliberative assembly, like the English House of Commons around the same period.
Such a system left virtually no room for strong central government – the elected king – to govern effectively. The king was stripped of the power to govern, whereas the nobility could claim to enjoy “Golden Liberty.” But this liberty could be had only at the expense of the weak State and submission of the vast part of the population.
The American Founding Fathers, on the other hand, worked on the assumption that the people are free to participate, and the role of the government is to mitigate the conflicts. To prevent anarchy, or impotence of the government, the State – the federal government – had to have considerable power. Polish liberum veto, which made it possible for one person to veto the majority decision, was the opposite of the majority principle.
Can you very briefly explain how such a system came about? Were there any serious political thinkers – like Grotius, Hobbes, Locke – behind it? Or was it something that was spontaneously generated during the historical process?
AN: The system was modeled on a Roman one that lasted only a little longer. And it was not Grotius, Hobbes, or Locke who supported the creation of this system, but much more “serious thinkers” – Aristotle and Cicero first of all.
The founders of Polish republicanism modeled themselves on their works above all. They believed, somewhat anachronistically, that in the sixteenth or seventeenth century their republicanism could exist between Moscow – the “third Rome”- the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Empire and the Protestant military monarchy of the Swedes, the Commonwealth, i.e. the republic – as in Cicero or Aristotle (monarchia mixta), with the Polish nobility as equals, the Seym (the parliament) as a concilium plebis, the senate as the senate, and the king as an elected consul or princeps.
This is how Jan Zamoyski, influential co-founder of this system, imagined an extremely influential co-founder of this system. Zamoyski authored the Latin treatise on the Roman Senate, and was at the same time chancellor and hetman of the Republic of Poland at the end of the 16th century. He was the author of the concept of the free election of a king, in which every noble had an equal voting right. Thus, theoretically, it had the right to vote, active and passive(!), with several hundred thousand citizens of the Republic of Poland (in practice, the election of the king came from 10 to 40 thousand).
The right of veto was to secure the union with Lithuania. Lithuania was smaller than the Polish part of the union; it could always vote in the Sejm. Thanks to the right of veto, the Lithuanians could feel safer as a political minority. For the first time, a single veto, i.e., the vote of one deputy, broke the deliberations of the Seym only in 1652, that is, after a very long earlier period of efficient functioning of the Seym. The election instruction of the sejmik (imperative mandate), which elected a deputy to the Seym, was to guarantee the voting power of the local government.
There is no place here to analyze this system in detail, which was much more complex and effective (for at least 200 years) than the caricatures that Bodin or Montesquieu created on the basis of their ignorance and arrogance, or the ideological enemies of republican freedom, such as, Hobbes or Locke.
ZJ: I want to return to Russia, and explore a bit more the Dostoevsky question. As we said, he was Russian, Orthodox Christian, skeptical of science, which he thought was dangerous for man’s understanding of himself as a man endowed with free will, and thus responsible for his actions. As Dostoevsky observes in Notes, the belief that man’s behavior can be “tabulated and calculated” spells out the end of mankind.
Dostoyevsky understood that scientific thinking was bound to see man as a machine, whose life will be organized by the scientific state. This is the premise of Huxley’s “brave new world,” and, let me stress it, our world. We are daily bombarded by phrases such as “A new study shows…” “New research demonstrates…” Such phrases take away from us the power of making decisions about our individual lives.
Would you agree that for historical reasons, which brought Russia closer to Europe, early 19th century Russia became a focal point of Western civilization, where the problems of the modern West shone with much brighter intensity than in Western Europe. Nowhere – not in London, Paris, Berlin or even Warsaw – writers or philosophers reacted so intensely, as did Dostoevsky, at the thought of where the West was heading.
AN: But all that fascination with Russia, the “depth” of the Russian soul, which 20th century Western European writers discovered in Dostoevsky, can also be found in the great literature of Romantic Europe: in Adam Mickiewicz, Zygmunt Krasiński, but also in Shelley, Keats, and even earlier at Byron. The terrifying pattern of a “brave new world” can be found in the practical idea of the English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham.
To illustrate the relationship between the vision of horror, which Western thought was able to perfectly design, and the implementation of this vision, which was possible (for some time) only outside the West, e.g., in the authoritarian system of Russia, let me recall the history of the Panopticon. Jeremy Bentham had a brother, Samuel. Together they created a project of perfect supervision of imperfect humanity. They named it the Panopticon. They created it in Krzyczew (today on the eastern border of Belarus), which was occupied by Catherine II during the first partition of Poland.
Samuel Bentham found employment, like many world reform enthusiasts, in imperial Russia. Krzyczew and several thousand surrounding square versts taken from Lithuanian owners was given by the empress to her favorite Prince Grigory Potemkin. It was for him that the English engineer invented a new factory in the fall of 1786: a building with such a system of corridors and mirrors to be able to observe all its employees from one place. It was not about disciplining simple peasants in the area, but about supervising overseers brought in from England. To have control over every movement of those who are to act as “intelligence,” “professionals,” “elite.” This is the starting idea of the Panopticon.
Jeremy Bentham, who visited his brother in Krzyczew in 1787, was fascinated. He took up his idea and turned it into a project of an ideal prison, under the same name. He was ready to develop other applications of the same idea – apart from prisons and factories, also for hospitals and schools. See and supervise everyone without interruption. The prison inspector, playing this role, could, according to a utilitarian concept, combine business with pleasure: invite guests to his gallery, from which one could admire what the supervised do at any one time. Big Brother watches, controls and provides entertainment.
A union of perfect supervision, with the ideal of social transparency was to make life happy and safe (I recommend the movie The Circle from 2017, which shows perfectly how it works – and therefore destroyed by “right” criticism). Minimum pain, maximum pleasure. In England, the idea of the Bentham brothers was not realized – at least during their lifetime. In Russia, the younger brother did not manage to bring complete the factory: Potemkin sold Krzyczew in 1787 and set out to prepare the way for Catherine II’s triumphal journey from St. Petersburg to the Black Sea.
Samuel Bentham busied himself with the construction of Potemkin villages along the route. He returned to the idea of the Panopticon in 1806, when commissioned by Tsar Alexander I, he built such a school in St. Petersburg. A perfect prison according to the model of the Bentham brothers, including the US and Cuba, was only constructed with the use of electronic surveillance bracelets in Amsterdam, the capital of post-modern utility and pleasure (drugs plus euthanasia), in 2006.
ZJ: Dostoevsky’s suspicion of the West appears to be a distinguishing feature of the Russian mentality. But suspicion can translate itself into a political posture that one country assumes vis-à-vis other countries or civilizations. Suspicion can also produce a mentality which has a sense of its own of mission. Russia, like America, believes that it has a historical mission. Marquis de Custine, a French aristocrat who visited Russia, even prophesized that that the fate of the 20th century would be decided by Russia and America.
Let me quote here the 15th century letter by Philotheus of Pskov, which he wrote to the Grand Duke Basil III of Moscow: “The Church of Old Rome fell because of its heresy; the gates of the Second Rome, Constantinople, have been hewn down by the axes of the infidel Turks; but the Church of Moscow, the Church of the New Rome, shines brighter than the Sun in the whole Universe… Two Romes have fallen, but the Third stands fast; a fourth there cannot be.”
If you take the message of the letter to be an expression of a mind-set, there is Putin’s rule today, in that he sees nothing wrong with 74 years of Communist rule in Russia; he pours tears over the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest disaster of the 20th century. Russia’s aggressive posturing under Putin appears to be more than lack of civility, or even cynicism of a former KGB agent. Russia in Putin’s mind continues to be a country with a historical mission.
Arnold Toynbee, who used this letter in a chapter on Russia in his Civilization on Trial (1948), wrote: “In thus assuming the Byzantine heritage deliberately and self-consciously, the Russians were taking over, among other things, the traditional Byzantine attitude towards the West; and this has had a profound effect on Russia’s own attitude towards the West, not only before the Revolution of 1917 but after it.”
Ultimately, it would appear that today’s world expresses the ideas that go back to the sources of our civilizations: Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) Christianity, Eastern and Western Roman Empires, two different sets of political culture, political institutions. We find the echo of it in Dostoevsky too, in “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” in his criticism of Caesaro-papism, don’t we?
AN: Russia is born with a sense of a threat to its civilizational identity; it defends itself against the specter of political and spiritual colonization. This is how the fundamental idea of Russia is formed: Moscow – the Third Rome. Ruthenia linked its identity with Byzantium, with the Orthodox center of civilization. In 988, at the time of Vladimir the Great’s choice of state religion for Kievan Rus, this Byzantine center seemed to be an unchallenged alternative to “Latin” identity. In the 15th century, this center collapsed.
Orthodox civilization was then the basis of identity of only one sovereign political center: Moscow. Triumphant “Latin” pressed on it from the West, and Islam from the South. If Moscow dies, all civilization will die. Civilizational violence threatens the Orthodox world primarily from the West, from the “Latin” side. Byzantium itself succumbed to the West’s temptation just before the fall, accepting the ecclesiastical union in Florence (Moscow rejects this temptation). However, at stake in this game is not only defense against civilizational violence. The fate of the world is at stake, since it is about defending not so much one civilization as such, but the only true religion and its place in the world. Philotheus, the monk of the Pskov monastery of Eleazar, writes about it, puts this thought into words and presents it as an ideal-mission addressed to the power of the Moscow principality.
Laid out for the first time in a message to Grand Duke Vasilii III (around 1514-1521) and elaborated in letters in the years following, the idea of Moscow – Rome III – became the best known and most frequently updated concept of Russia’s special mission from the 19th to the 21st century. Thanks to this, Philotheus can be considered the first intellectual in the history of Russia. He is not an official writing for the state.
He is, in a sense, a man from the margins (Pskov had only just joined Moscow in 1510), passionately experiencing public affairs, the affairs of his spiritual and political community and seeking to rescue it in the face of a new great “civilizational” challenge. He seeks this rescue in the sphere of ideas and suggests it to the authorities. He does not appear as an unconditional servant of this authority, but shows its immense responsibility to protect the great idea it reveals.
Philotheus also shows examples of the betrayal of this idea by the state power – in Rome I and in Rome II (Byzantium) – and the punishment of the inevitable fall that the government’s betrayal of the ideal entails. Philotheus teaches authority: “let him know… let him remember….” He sets the condition: “If you will arrange your empire well – you will be a son of light and an inhabitant of upper Jerusalem, and, as I wrote above, so now I say: beware and note that all Christian empires have joined in yours, that two Romes have fallen and the third is standing. There will be no fourth. Contrary to the widespread interpretation of this text, it seems that it is not an unequivocal expression of faith that Moscow will always remain Rome III, that it will certainly bear the burden of this responsibility. Moscow is also threatened with the “Sodom sin,” an internal apostasy warned against by the voice of a 16th-century “intellectual.”
Philotheus only states that Moscow has no one to replace it, in its great mission to save the truth and the world. If it collapses – Rome will certainly not exist; there will be no more truth and justice in the world. That is why Moscow must not be allowed to fall! This is the pathos of the mission assigned by Philotheus to the Orthodox empire, and thus the pathos of his own, “first intelligence” of the mission.
Combined with Moscow’s heritage of Rome – empire, strength, and Jerusalem – is the heritage of the spirit. And against the world in which “lies in evil.” In practice, to the ”Latin” and Western world, which in the 16th century, after an internal split connected with the Reformation, and which entered the phase of great colonial expansion and became an obvious source of the problem of modernization and, at the same time, Moscow gives models and techniques for solving it. Russia needs to strengthen its empire to save its spiritual identity from the threat from the West, and thus maintain the ability to salvage/save/liberate the whole world. This is how the thought of Philoteus is read by some in intellectual circles and is not without influence on contemporary public opinion in Russia.
ZJ: Hostility, mutual suspicion between the Russians and the Poles is well known. The Polish see Russians as aggressors, the country that dismembered Poland in the 18th century, that erased the Dutchy of Warsaw in the 19th century. The Poles fought the Russians in the 1919-1920 war, after Poland regained statehood in 1918, after 123 years. Finally, it was Soviet Russia which imposed communist rule on Poland after WWII. This is only a handful of historical events that shape the attitude of the Poles toward Russia. Putin’s hostile attitude toward Poland today can be seen as the continuation of “the old story.”
However, looking at Polish-Russian relationships in a long historical perspective, one can see a different picture. If one takes into account the Polish conquest of most of White Russia and the Ukraine – in the 17th century Polish forces came close to Moscow, but were driven out. Russia can see itself not as aggressor but as a victim of Western aggression, of Western or Latin Christianity against the true Eastern Christianity, the Orthodox Church. If you add to it Napoleon’s Russian adventure, then the German invasion, the feeling of victimhood gets more augmented. One could say, Russia’s imperial posture was never motivated by the desire to dominate others but was a defensive posture, a posture that Russia had to assume to save herself and her Orthodox faith. Can such an argument on behalf of Russia be made?
AN: Yes, Russia has for centuries justified its expansion with the need to obtain a “security buffer” that would protect it against aggressive neighbors from the East and West. When Moscow began its expansion in the 15th century, it occupied a territory the size of the state of Utah. She “felt” threatened by her neighbors, such as the Tver principality or the republic of Novgorod – she absorbed these neighbors.
Then she “felt” threatened by subsequent neighbors. In the West, it was Lithuania, which was joined in the 14th century by many small principalities of Kievan Rus (today’s Ukraine and Belarus), emerging from the rule of the Mongolian Golden Horde. Moscow then announced the ideology of “collecting Ruthenian lands” (which had never belonged to Moscow before).
Poland did not make any conquest of the lands of Belarus or Ukraine, but entered into a dynastic union with Lithuania in 1385 – and on this basis (the marriage of the Grand Duke of Lithuania Jagiełło with the Queen of Poland, Jadwiga), a state union was established, which for four hundred years united Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania, including the lands of today’s Belarus and Ukraine.
During these four hundred years, Moscow had been waging a series of wars in which it had finally taken all these territories, except for a small scrap of former Russia which was occupied by Austria as a result of the partitions of Poland.
At the same time, in the East, Moscow “felt” threatened by the remnants of the Mongolian Golden Horde, the Kazan, Astrakhan and Siberian khanates – and conquered them militarily in half a century (1550-1600).
Then, of course, it was “threatened” again by successive neighbors, small khanates, in Central Asia – it took them all by the mid-19th century. It also reached China at the end of the 17th century. And she felt “threatened” by China. However, it has not managed to permanently remove this threat, that is, to conquer China.
In the South, Russia “felt,” from the 16th century, “threatened” by Turkey and Persia, so it began to conquer their possessions, including Transcaucasia – Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, as well as the Crimean Khanate on the Black Sea. It has not yet conquered Turkey itself (although that was the goal of Russian policy from the end of the 18th century). But she still “feels” threatened by Turkey. After the partition of Poland, under Catherine II at the end of the 18th century, Russia became a neighbor of Prussia. Of course, she “felt” threatened by the power of Germany united by Prussia in the times of Bismarck.
If we adopt such a logic of a threat that justifies defensive conquests only. Then let us note that from the 15th century to the end of the 18th century, Russia conquered on average about 60,000 square kilometers each year, combined territories of Maryland and Massachusetts. Each year, Russia was enlarging its territory in this way for over 300 years!
Stalin, in the name of this logic, persuaded Roosevelt to agree in Tehran and Yalta to give Russia (the Soviet Union) a “security buffer” covering all of Eastern and Central Europe, including Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, and including half of Berlin and Vienna. Of course, he still could not “feel” safe. Russia’s security can only mean to bring the whole of Eurasia under its control, from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
You can accept this reasoning only if you see in it an analogy to the American “Manifest Destiny.” But it is worth asking the opinion of the inhabitants of all the countries that first Moscow, then imperial Russia, and finally the Soviet Union, conquered in the name of Russia’s “sense of security” and the right to “self-defense.”
ZJ: Let us talk about 1989, the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, and 1991, the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Eastern European countries rushed to join the EU. Russia, on the other hand, is where it always was. For the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, the citizens of the Baltic states – Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia (former Soviet “republics”) – the motivation was not just economic but cultural above all. One could hear the language of “returning to Europe” after decades of the culturally foreign rule. What prevented Russia from getting closer to Europe after the collapse of Communism?
AN: We need to remember, Russia has formed its political and cultural identity as an Orthodox empire, in contrast, often, against Latin, that is, Catholic Europe. Under Mongol rule for two and a half centuries, it was, as it were, forcibly opened to Asia. Since the 15th century, Moscow, pursuing a policy of “collecting Ruthenian lands,” entered into intense diplomatic and trade relations with European powers: the Habsburg Empire, and the England of Elizabeth, in order to geopolitically surround its immediate neighbors.
However, Russia did not participate in the spiritual life of Europe, in the crucial period of the Renaissance. Only from the Baroque, actually from the end of the 17th century, does Russia interact with the intellectual currents animating European culture. At that time, however, Russia had already made a great march in the opposite direction to the former Asian steppe empires – from the Western end of the Great Steppe, over the Black Sea, it reached the Pacific; in the 17th century it began to border China, Korea, followed by Japan.
Such a geopolitically enlarged Russia could no longer enter Europe, “fit” in it. The intellectual challenge, often fascinatingly analyzed by Russian writers and ideologues, is not “Russia in Europe,” but “Russia and Europe.” Space – prostor – history and religion make up a deeply rooted political culture in Russia. Together they create a “mental map” on which the memory of Tchaikovsky’s ballets, Pushkin’s poems or Dostoevsky’s novels is not “evidence” of Russia’s Europeanness, but a reason for imperial pride, along with the equally grateful memory of Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Stalin.
ZJ: Let me go back one more time to 1989. One thing one notices is that the 1989 European dream in Eastern European countries is gone, and to some, the dream became a nightmare. Brexit is the prime example of that. The British sentiment can be said to be this – we did not sign up for that. We did not think our sovereignty would be limited to such an extent. This is what one hears in Budapest and Warsaw.
Recently, I asked a Polish politician – what do you think of a Polish Brexit? To my surprise, he said: “Nothing would make me happier.” Let me stress – this is not a view prevalent among Poles, most of them like where they are. But there is a considerable segment of Polish society which considers it as a serious intellectual option. The reason is the sovereignty of the Polish or Hungarian state, which EU crushes – the sovereignty that Poland was deprived of, first by partition and then the Soviet rule. It should not surprise anyone why Poles (but also others) are sensitive about a bunch of Euro-bureaucrats deciding their fate. You cannot be yourself – English, Polish, French, Italian – you must be a “European,” which means being a total abstraction.
A few months ago, I saw a headline in a major Polish newspaper: “EU must defend its citizens in Poland.” The article concerned so called minorities. According to the liberal Polish newspaper, they are EU citizens and therefore, Polish laws are violations of their rights as EU citizens. One wants to repeat after Bentham, it is nonsense on stilts, yet it is the de facto European reality. Was the post-communist dream false, or did the West change in the last 30 years?
AN: Both. The expectations of the intellectual opposition in Poland towards the West were certainly exaggerated. The image of the “free world” depicted in our imagination in contrast to the gray and openly oppressive world of the “Communist camp” was idealized.
At the same time, however, it must be remembered that the West in 1989 was still the West, politically represented by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and above all – John Paul II was in Rome. Back then in Europe they referred to the so-called founding fathers of the European Union, to their Christian-democratic roots: Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi, Robert Schuman.
Marxism, after the obvious failure of this ideology in the countries under its authority, seemed finished, at least from our perspective. In 2020, you can see how Marxist inspiration fills the longest shelves with philosophy and politics in bookstores in Paris and London. As it dominates universities in Western Europe and our part of Europe, described in a postcolonial way as “new” (“new” democracies, “new” Europe, etc.), it actually follows these trends in a way that perfectly confirms the mechanisms described by some theorists of postcolonial studies.
However, part of the “intellectual layer,” and many so-called ordinary people, in countries with a strong historical and cultural identity of their own, such as Hungary, Poland or the Czech Republic, still keep the memory of the real experience of enslavement by the Communist logocracy, from which today comes the political correctness that dominates in the West and is imposed on us. That is why this new enslavement, this time coming from the West, is met with some resistance here.
However, fears of the real neo-imperialism of Putin’s Russia do not allow countries, such as Poland or Lithuania, to suddenly cut off from the European community, even in its present, disastrous shape. We can try to change Europe, stop this fatal process from within. This is what worries the Brussels, Parisian and Berlin political and intellectual elites. They ascribe to themselves the role of teacher and therapist for a “backward,” “sick” part of Europe (here the most frequently mentioned are Hungary and Poland).
In fact, I see in this attitude also a deep fear that the attitude of the elites currently ruling in Poland and Hungary, in matters of culture, customs, understanding of the European tradition – may turn out to be attractive to many Germans, French, Italians, and Spaniards – who do not necessarily want to run after the “bright future” promised by European progress officials. Many European people are looking to defend their common sense against ideological madness. Some people recall that Europe has always been rich because of its diversity and not of top-down centralization, and not by exchanging arguments about the good life, development models, and not by imposing “just the right approach.”
ZJ: What you have said makes me think of a famous sentence from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859): “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting the end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate to find one.”
Unlike democracy, despotism or autocracy, with which we associate the Orient and Russia, is not a political system or a theory of government. Rather, it is mode of governing a people. As a specialist on Russia, can you say that Mill’s words apply well to the state of Russian society at that time? In other words, is autocracy a system of government – the only force that could guarantee social and political order?
AN: I would disagree. Aleksander Wat, a Polish futurist poet who passed through nearly 20 prisons of Stalinist Russia during World War II, once gave a very good definition of the Soviet system – the absolute concentration of absolute power on an absolutely large area. An alternative to despotism (i.e., centralism) may be federalism – the development of regional self-government in a territorially large state.
Let me remind you that until the beginning of the 16th century, the Polish-Lithuanian state was larger in terms of territory than Moscow and until the partitions (in 1772) it was the second largest state on the European continent. And it was on such a large area that a system of decentralized authority was created, based on local self-government (district councils), which functioned well from at least the 15th to the 17th century.
As is known in the United States, this system continues. In Moscow, they also showed possibilities of developing a system of representation of the society several times: at the beginning of the 17th century, in the form of the so-called “earthly councils.” The movement of local, that is, earthly self-government, became strong again at the end of the 19th century – this is the self-government in which people like Chekhov and the heroes of his plays could find their place.
The defenders of despotism as the only recipe for the problems of the great state refer to one argument above all: if we do not have a tsar and we do not listen to him – then we will lose the empire. Putin successfully appealed to this argument after the last great experience of the crisis of the empire, which also coincided with the revival of Russian self-government – in 1991.
Ultimately, the dilemma faced by the supporters of this power for Russians (and not only for them) is – either size (grandezza as Machiavelli would say), or freedom – a liberta. You want greatness, give up your (republican, self-governing) freedom. At the same time, a new tone appears in this argumentation – state despotism (meaning the lack of civil self-government) can be reconciled with liberalism – economic and the right to privacy.
In the Russian philosophical tradition of Slavicism, there is such a contrast – the state is a heavy-duty power – and society willingly gives its burden to the people of power, and itself enjoys non-political freedom. And this is probably not only the Russian tradition, but the constantly reviving temptation to organize political life without citizens. There is only the state (and its guardians) – and on the other end – individual consumers.
ZJ: Could one say the same thing about China, and the Chinese leaders’ rhetoric that we have been hearing for about 20 years – that what China fears the most is anarchy. Ergo, the Chinese Communist Party is the sole guardian of social order; and since anarchy is worse than anything, despotism or autocracy is a legitimate way of governing the population. Some 15 years ago, Boris Johnson wrote a piece for the Spectator, where he accepted this view about anarchy in China, which makes me think that Chinese rhetoric works. Today Johnson is Prime minister, and what he thinks can translate into his country’s foreign policy.
AN: China has just adopted the model I outlined at the end of the answer to the previous question. Does this mean that it is the only model that suits the Chinese? After an intense indoctrination lasting for generations, one can get this impression. The Chinese from Hong Kong have a different opinion, however.
Please allow me to express my opinion on Prime Minister Johnson’s view and on Mill’s remark earlier cited. Well, I see them as a reflection of the imperial-colonial tradition, especially strong in the English (later also American) elites. Outside of Great Britain, and maybe even outside the club, which brings together the elite from Eton and Oxbridge, there are actually no gentlemen. There are barbarians all around – at least to the East of Germany are surely the habitats of barbaria. The barbarians living there can be cannibals, if that suits them, we – gentlemen from the club – will not hinder trading with them.
The most cynical example of this attitude I found in the liberal prime minister, David Lloyd George, who in 1920, when he initiated political negotiations with Lenin, said that he did not care about the political principles of these barbarians, let them even have the Mikado – it is their business, as long as they kill other barbarians (this is what Lloyd George meant about the Armia Czerowna – the Red Army – which at that moment was storming Warsaw). And let them get together as they please – this is their freedom. And this is our liberalism that we will not impose our political standards on them. We must reach an agreement with them, if they are so strong that without them it is impossible to establish a global order. This is a specific combination of liberalism (à la Lloyd George) and imperial Realpolitik.
In America, this is the approach of many – formerly Henry Kissinger, now John Mearsheimer. For me, this is a very short-sighted doctrine of appeasement – the false hope that aggressive despotism will feed on victims only from the circle of “barbarians.” Eventually, however, comes the moment when the “barbarians” start eating the gentlemen. Such is the logic of despotic empires. It is perfectly summarized by the saying of Bezborodko, Chancellor of Catherine II – what does not grow, rots. The despotic empire must continue to expand – otherwise it risks imploding. And they know this very well not only in Russia, but also in China. It is good that this has also been remembered in London and Chicago.
ZJ: Now that the Democrat Biden has become president of the United States, we will have a different foreign policy. If you were on the team of Russia advisers to the president, what would you say should be the US policy vis-à-vis Russia?
AN: President Biden will have other advisers. I can only express some concerns based on the historical experience with the presidents of the United States, who over the past three decades came from the Democratic Party and represented a left-liberal ideology. They were, let me remind you, Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama.
The former started with dreams of a “reset” with Russia. Fortunately, Russia was so weak during this period that it could not take advantage of this policy. The disaster happened under Obama, who has the blood of hundreds of thousands of people in Syria on his hands. His complete irresponsibility led to an escalation of the civil war and to the re-installing of Putin’s Russia as a key player in the Middle East.
Obama also made a significant gesture to Putin – he resigned from the project adopted by the previous administration (Bush Jr.) to install the so-called anti-missile shield in Poland. President Obama announced his decision to withdraw from this project, which was indeed very irritating to Putin and which strengthened the sense of security for Poland and the entire region of Central and Eastern Europe, on September 17, 2009. It was exactly the 70th anniversary of the Red Army’s invasion of Poland in 1939.
Putin may have felt invited to a new expansion – and he tried it in Ukraine. At that time, however, President Obama was probably instructed by people who knew the rules of world security better than him – and there was a certain reaction to the aggression in Crimea, and then in the Donbas.
What am I afraid of? That under the slogan of the fight for a “brave new world,” led again by liberal America, the US president will not recognize that it is not good stigmatizing smaller countries that do not accept this ideology and handing them over to Russia as “pariahs of the democratic order.” It does not have to be democratic or liberal, but it is very important to this vision of “restoring order” that it be fulfilled by restoring its former zone of domination (Ukraine? Maybe Poland? Maybe most of Central and Eastern Europe?).
In short, I am afraid of combining the slogans of the ideological “crusade” (actually, anti-crusade) inside the so-called Western community, understood as a community of LGBTQ+ rights and unlimited abortion – with a practical policy of the so-called realism in relations with non-Western empires such as Russia. The costs of such a policy would be paid primarily by the countries of the inter-imperial border, such as Poland, Lithuania, or – on the border with China – Korea and Taiwan.
ZJ: Given what you said about Russia and China, it seems to me to be only proper to invoke here two Frenchmen. In the 1830, they embarked on long trips in two different directions – Alexis de Tocqueville went to America; Marquis de Custine went to Russia.
Not much was known about the two countries. Before Tocqueville published his book, there were, I believe, only three or four books about America. Tocqueville’s and his young companion Beaumont’s books were the first ones to offer an exhaustive view of both the country and, above all, American democracy.
De Custine, on the other hand, was looking for an alternative to democracy. For Custine, in the words of Robin Buss, the English translator and editor of his Letters, “democracy meant mob rule and the dictatorship of public opinion, through rabble-rousing speeches and the press.” Encouraged by his friend Balzac and the Polish Count Ignacy Gurowski, he set out for Russia.
The fruit of his visit is Russia (1839), or The Letters from Russia. By today’s standards, Tocqueville’s book is an international bestseller, and everyone who wants to understand democracy must read it. Given its success in the 20th century, the popularity of Tocqueville’s work is not surprising. However, the 21st century is different.
The rise of China with its autocratic style of government should be of concern to everyone. Russian democracy is a democracy in name only; for all intents and purposes it is a mild form of old autocracy. The difference between it and China is that the Chinese rulers do not hide their contempt for democracy, Xi Jing Ping openly says that the system is a failure. Both leaders share two things – the respective countries’ tradition of autocratic rule (strengthened in the 20th century by the experience of Communism) and the belief that only autocratic rule is capable of preventing a country from sliding into anarchy.
Would you agree that given democracy’s current performance in America and Europe, there is every reason to read de Custine’s account.
AN: People knew quite a lot about Russia in France before de Custine. Let us recall, for example, that the French Grand Army visited Russia in 1812, and two years later France was “returned” by the Russian army (Normandy was a Russian occupation zone for two years). A lot of arguments have already been gathered, both on the side of Russophobia and Russophilia.
The first French treaty stigmatizing the Russian political system as oriental despotism was published in 1771. It was written by Abbé Chappe d’Auteroche who visited Siberia (voluntarily), and Catherine II herself replied to him with a two-volume refutation of his arguments (I write about it at length in my recent book, entitled, Metamorphoses of the Russian Empire 1721-1921). This work, published immediately in French under the title Antidote and translated into English, was not only the defense of Russia’s right to the name of a European power, but also the justification of the autocracy.
As I argue in this book, in such a huge country as Russia, another form of power would lead to disintegration. The Russian system is not despotic, but a noble, enlightened absolutism, motivated by concern for the greatness of the state and the welfare of its subjects. So much for Catherine the Great. And it is so today, until the time of Putin’s apologists.
These arguments excellently convinced the French elite (and not only them). After all, Montesquieu said the same – this is why we should refer to de Custine’s work, because it helps us understand that the nature of the Russian despotic system is not autocracy itself, but above all lies, systematic, omnipresent, gradually disturbing cognitive abilities. The lie of the subjects against the authorities, the lie of the authorities against the subjects, and the systematic lie of the power of the Empire against its foreign partners.
No partner is actually a partner; each one is treated as an enemy to be deceived and manipulated. The KGB school, from which most of Russia’s current political elite hails, has raised this ability to lie to an incomparably higher degree than was possible in the days of Nicholas I and de Custine.
The contradiction of the various “narratives” that this Russian rule presents about itself is staggering. For the right wing, Putin is to be the “eschaton” of the Christian order, the last defender of the Cross against neo-paganism and Islam. For the Left (the propaganda of the Russia Today television station is addressed to this audience) – the last tough opponent of hated America, to some extent heir to Lenin’s Russia. For Western businessmen – a model of a good business partner. And so on. Whoever reads de Custine will understand the genesis of these narratives.
ZJ: Russia is not the only country that created national myths, such as the Third Rome. Other nations have this tendency too: Rule Britannia, the City on the Hill, the Third Reich, and many, many others.
The Poles – very much like the French – are obsessed with national history. They created a myth which is not about ruling the world but saving the Western World from barbarian onslaught. It is the myth of the antemurale chirstianitatis, the Bulwark of Christianity. The origin of it is not Polish. As far as I know, it was coined in 15th century, during the papacy of Pius II. It was Skadenberg, an Albanian Nobleman, who coined the term, which meant that Albania (and Croatia) was Italy’s Christian bulwark against the Ottoman Empire. Poles adopted it; it functions in Poland, but in Poland it means more than the fight against the Muslims or infidels at the battle of Vienna on September 11 (!) 1683, where the Poles defeated the Turks. It is understood as antemurale against the East, Orient, the oriental despotism. It includes Russia as a barbarian force as well. Given the Christian (Orthodox) nature of Russia, is this historical vision justified; and using it against Eastern Orthodoxy, are we not in danger of creating a false historical imagination?
AN: I do not know if Poles are “obsessed” with national history. I have a different impression when I look at the youth which is protesting today in the streets of Polish cities with the most vulgar words, to emphasize their hatred for the Catholic Church, Christian tradition and the historical identity of Poland.
Let me make a comment on this issue. It is difficult, for example, for Belgium to be “obsessed” with its history, since it was created as a completely artificial state entity less than 200 years ago. It is difficult for Germany to express “obsession with history,” that is pride in its tradition, for obvious reasons. Simply put, nations have different histories, of different lengths, and different intensity as to how this history is experienced by social groups of different sizes. No one matches China in this respect. When you compare Poles with Jews, the Jews will undoubtedly turn out to be a nation much more “obsessed with their history.”
And now about the “bulwark of Christianity.” Again – a complete misunderstanding. The idea of a bulwark appears in Polish history in 1241 – during the great Mongol invasion. After the conquest of Ruthenia (Kievan Rus’ or Ruthenia!!! – not Russia), the Mongols moved to Hungary and Poland. On April 9, 1241, the prince of Poland, Henry the Pious blocked the way of the Mongols near Legnica. He led about 7000 – 8000 Polish and German knights, including 36 Templars. The prince was killed, the battle was lost, but the Mongols, having suffered heavy losses (similar to the parallel battle fought in Hungary), turned back.
The mood in Latin Europe at that time was truly apocalyptic. The fear of the Mongols as invaders from a completely different, completely alien world, as if of an invasion of the Martians, paralyzed the will of defense in many, but fired the imagination of no fewer people in the Latin West. Part of the Jewish communities scattered around the cities of the Reich were very excited about the news of the mysterious approaching Mongols. The Jews waited for liberation in the year of 5000 (1240/1241), which was exactly at this time on their calendar. There were also those who expected such liberation to come from the hands of the Mongols. In fact, some even saw in Genghis Khan the Messiah, the son of David.
After the defeat in Legnica, the echoes quickly reached even out to Frankfurt am Main, where the local Jews in May opposed with unprecedented audacity the baptism of one of their fellow believers who had freely chosen Christianity. It ended on May 24 with a terrible pogrom, which brought upon the Jews the fear of the Frankfurters and rumors of favoring the wild invaders from the East by the followers of Moses. The threatened rulers, including the Hungarian king Béla IV, the Czech king Wenceslaus I, Prince Frederick of Austria, and the emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen himself, in letters, called for defense against the Mongols.
This was the context in which in Poland, Henryk the Pious, Legnica appeared, the heroic but lost fight on the Eastern fringes of the empire and Latin Europe. And this was the beginning of not only a myth, but a practical experience, the last (thus far) military act which, in Poland, is considered as having stopped the invasion of Central Europe by the Bolshevik Red Army in the summer of 1920, in the Battle of Warsaw. Legnica 1241 was most often mentioned in the journalism of the time. Will new experiences be added to this in the 21st century? I do not know, but I do not rule it out.
ZJ: Allow me to finish this conversation with a question which has been on my mind for many years. At the beginning of the 1990s, Poles coined the word “lustracja” (from the word “lustro,” mirror) which means “mirroring.” It is a made-up term that describes the process of making former communists, State apparatchiks, secret agents and collaborators accountable for their participation in building socialism. In the post-communist societies people who did not support socialism, who suffered, who were persecuted or prevented from social advancement felt it necessary to expose those who upheld the system, who held power at the expense of the people who refused to participate in the Great Lie.
It was a form of showing the former commies and collaborators that their participation in the system was simply a matter of human indecency.
Unlike Poland, former Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Russia have never undergone such a process – no moral or legal punishment for the former communists and collaborators. The old communists and collaborators, KGB agents, like Putin, became the lords of the New Russia. No such thing would be imaginable in Soviet satellite countries.
In your expert opinion, first, how significant has been the lack of “lustration” for the moral health of Russia, and, second, did the Russians realize what Communism did to Russia?
AN: The importance of this issue was best described by James Billington, an outstanding scholar of Russian thought and culture, in his book Russia in Search of Itself. Let me quote a key excerpt from the summary of this book: “There are essentially four ways that a nation can move beyond the fact of massive complicity in unprecedented evil. 1. Remove the problem from public consciousness. 2. Transfer the burden of evil to others. 3 . Evade the problem of evil in society by creating a noble personal philosophy for an elite. 4. Overcome evil by accepting the redemptive power of innocent suffering.”
This book was published in 2004. In 2020, it can be said that the official policy of remembrance in Putin’s Russia is a combination of the first two attitudes. The attitude most consistent with the Christian, Orthodox tradition, listed as the fourth in this list, has been marginalized.
As early as 2004, Billington was able to accurately pinpoint the cause of this state of affairs: “What is missing for this fact to open up broader redemptive possibilities for the Russian people is accountability, or even searching self-scrutiny, on the part of the Church itself.”
I am sorry to note that the lack of full accountability in a part of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Poland, for the cooperative spying of a small minority of priests with the communist police system in 1945-1989, also brings poisoned fruit into my country, Poland.
ZJ: Do you see any similarities between this and participating in all kinds of PC projects today – which is all morally questionable? Many people in the West, especially in academia, sold themselves to the Devil for the same reason that communists of old did. They are willing to justify today’s injustice in the name of future benefits. I am afraid, they, like the former commies will wake up from their dream of the better world, where all are equal and happy – very disappointed.
AN: Conformism, the lack of civil courage, is the most important, established and widespread feature of academia, at least in the humanities and social sciences. The ideology of “emancipation,” which today is the main instrument of the degradation of these areas, works – in my opinion – on a slightly different principle than you presented in your question.
In fact, under the lofty slogans of redressing past wrongs (towards women, animals, sexual minorities, and countries once colonized), professors of sociology, English studies, philosophy, political science, history and similar fields (displaced by new, more politically correct combinations) are ruthlessly fighting for their particular, current interests – for survival in a ruthless struggle. Survival of the fittest – this is the reality of this essentially amoral struggle, in which the stakes are a professorship, appearing on television, or the role of a social media star – and the alternative is the loss of a job, or experience of attacks by the media and environmental campaigns.
Adapt to the ideology currently imposed by the big media and their disposers – this is the method of survival. This is how the cultural revolution unfolds, more and more like the one that swept through China under Mao Zedong. Anyone who does not want the media and groups of students manipulated by it – to put on a “hat of shame” (as was done in China) – must join in stigmatizing colleagues who are still defending themselves against such degradation.
There is no labor camp waiting for them yet, but it is becoming more and more real to hand over those who still have the courage to think “incorrectly” to therapy, into the hands of therapists who will, anyway, remove “wrong” thoughts, concepts, and memories from their defiant heads. .
Probably no one has described the attitudes of intellectuals subjected to terror and the temptation to justify their cowardice better than the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz in his book, The Captive Mind. It is a book written in 1951 about the Polish intelligentsia conquered by the Stalinist diamat (dialectical materialism). This is also a book about the situation today at American and European universities. It is worth reading again.”
ZJ: Thank you, Dr. Nowak for this enlightening conversation.
The image shows, “Introduction of Christianity in Poland,” by Jan Matejko, painted in 1889.
The final phase of WWI was especially bitter and cruel, not only for the grimness of the fight between exhausted warring parties (except one, the US), but also because it became clear that alliance against the Central Powers was a mere façade. The growing Allied division emerged with a peculiar stance toward one enemy, the Ottoman Empire and a (former) ally, Russia.
And in this light, the year 1918 could be considered not only the year of the end of the war, but the beginning of a new era, marked by new dynamics and an attempt to reaffirm the old power structures.
The Allies approach was the re-proposition of “playbook” actions, which had always dominated the policies, mainly of Great Britain and France, since the 19th century, toward these two entities. And to them, with different motivations, may be added Italy, US, Japan, Serbia (with the new formation of Croatia-Slovenia), Greece, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Thus, behind the mask of a cohesive policy, the main target was the demolition and partition, among the winners, of the Ottoman Empire and the re-establishment of a weakened Russia; and, where this was not possible, replicating the planned fate for the Ottomans with the establishment of a galaxy of puppet states.
The strategic target of both Paris and London was multifold: extend their own area of influence (directly and/or indirectly), push back any threat against their own national strategic interests, and stand in front of their allies, especially if minor ones, with an eye on the growing polarization with Italy, especially by France. In this gigantic plan, the personalities of Lloyd George, Churchill and Clemenceau emerged as dominant; and perhaps, like never before, the political use of military force.
The level of Allied forces deployed in the two areas, at least by Western standards, were limited in comparison with the millions of men deployed on the different fronts of WWI. But they were highly influential and played a decisive political role, though a small combat role.
After The “Garden Of Salonika
The fighting along the Macedonian Front in September 1918 might not be as well-known as the Somme, Ypres or Verdun (and certainly less bloody), but in terms of delivering the fatal blow to the German war machine, it was unsurpassed. “It was upon this much-abused front that the final collapse of the Central Empires first began,” Winston Churchill wrote.
Controversy had marked the life of the Allied “Armée d’Orient” ever since it began deploying three years earlier through Salonika, the Greek port city that provided the southern gateway to the Balkans, and after the disastrous French-British attempt to take by force the Straits of Dardanelles which sought to blow up the Ottoman Empire and provide support to Russia. The Allies had great difficulties facing the Germans and the Austro-Hungarians on the Eastern front.
The force (consisting of 600,000 men), formally under French command, included French, British, Serbian, Italian, Montenegrin and Russian contingents; added later were Greek and pro-Entente Albanian units. The management of this army persistently reflected the divergent objectives of the participants.
For example, the British contingent constantly tried to minimize the impact of the French command and directives. Also among the French-Italian contingents, the relations were at best controversial, and the collapse of the Central Powers, following the attack in September 1918, underlined the fault-lines among the Allies, not only political but also militarily.
British troops, immediately after the ceasefire, were sent in to secure the Turkish straits; the Italians went to protect Albania; and the French remained committed to their staunch support of Serbs, with the aim of setting up a South pan-Slavic state in the Western Balkans, under the influence of Paris, and initially also with Greece.
After a visit by Talaat Pasha, the Grand Vizir, to other Central Powers capitals in September 1918, Constantinople realized that there was no hope to win the war. On 13 October, Talaat and the government resigned. Ahmed Izzet Pasha was appointed as Grand Vizir and two days later, he sent the captured British General Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend to the Allies to seek terms for an armistice.
London interpreted that to mean that Britain would conduct the negotiations alone. As of today, the motives of this are not entirely clear, whether it was the sincere British interpretation of the alliance terms; or fears that the French would insist on over-harsh demands and foil a treaty; or, again, there was a desire to cut the French out of territorial ambitions promised by the Sykes-Picot agreement.
Townshend also indicated that the Ottomans preferred to deal with the British; he did not know about the contact with America, or that Talaat had sent an emissary to the French as well; but that emissary had been slower to respond.
The British cabinet empowered Admiral Calthorpe to conduct the negotiations with an explicit exclusion of the French. The negotiations began on 27 October on board of HMS Agamemnon. The British refused to admit to the talks the French Vice-Admiral Jean Amet, the senior French naval officer in the area, despite his desire to join. The Ottoman delegation, headed by Navy Minister Rauf Bey, indicated that this was acceptable, as they were accredited only to the British, not the French (and even less, to the Italian, Greeks, and Serbs).
The French were certainly displeased, and the French Premier Georges Clemenceau, the “Tiger,” complained about British unilateral decisions in so important a matter. Lloyd George countered that the French had the same approach in the Armistice of Salonica, which had been negotiated by French General Franchet d’Esperey, without consultations with the commanders of the other Allied contingents, while Great Britain (and Tsarist Russia) had committed the most troops to the campaign against the Ottoman Empire on different fronts (the Palestine, Mesopotamia, Arabia Peninsula and Caucasus fronts).
As part of the armistice’s conditions, the Ottomans surrendered their remaining garrisons outside Anatolia and granted the Allies the right to occupy the forts controlling the Straits of the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus, as well as any Ottoman territory, “in case of disorder,” or if a threat to security occured. Later, this vague and obscure clause was widely used by the Allies for their massive interference in Turkish affairs The Ottoman forces were demobilized, and all ports, railways and other strategic points were made available for Alled use. In the Caucasus, the Ottomans had to retreat to pre-war borders with the Russian Empire. Following this armistice, the occupation of Constantinople and the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire started.
Thereafter, it took 15 months of tough negotiations among the Allies (Britain, France and Italy) to establish which territories each of them would get. As for the other defeated powers, the military clauses were bitter. The Army of the defeated powers was restricted to 50,000; the Navy to a few old ships; and no air force. The treaty included an inter-allied commission of control to supervise the execution of all the military clauses.
The Treaty of Sèvres showed the worst face of the imperialist dreams of the winning powers, not only as in the above-mentioned military clauses, but with the establishment of Zones of Influence, which resulted in an imposition of a kind of multinational protectorate over the defeated country.
Under the treaty, within the territory retained by Turkey (excluding Armenia and Kurdistan), France received parts of Southeastern Anatolia, including Antep, Urfa and Mardin. Important parts of Cilicia including Adana, Diyarbakır and large portions of East-Central Anatolia up to Sivas and Tokat were declared a zone of French influence, garrisoned by troops of the newly established ‘Armée du Levant’ (on 7 October 1918), moving and expanding from their landing spot in Beirut (Octover 11). The first elements of this force came from the former “Armée d’Orient” with the ad hoc established “Division of Cilicia” (consisting of the 12th Infantry, the 17th Senegalese, 18th Algerian Regiments, and the Armenian Legion). A second unit, the “Division of Syria” (consisting of the 415th Infantry, the 3rd Zouaves, the 19th, 21st, and the 22nd Algerian Regiments) was rapidly set up, and tasked to expand French control in the assigned areas, while disarming Turkish and Arab troops in Syria and Lebanon.
Italy was given possession of the Dodecanese Islands (already under Italian occupation since the Italo-Turkish War of 1911–1912,) despite the Treaty of Ouchy, according to which Italy should have returned the islands to the Ottoman Empire. Large portions of Southern and West-Central Anatolia (the Mediterranean coast of Turkey and the inlands), including the port city of Antalya and Konya, were declared an Italian zone of influence. Antalya Province had been promised to Italy since the signing of the Treaty of London; and the Italian colonial authorities wished the zone to become an Italian colony under the name of “Lycia.”
Italian troops landed on 28 March 1919 in Antalya and then occupied Fethiye, Marmaris, Bodrum, Konya, Isparta and Aksehir. The Italian force was limited in terms of figures (13.000 troops with 3 regiments of infantry and support units) to control so expansive an area, which coincided with continuous infiltrations of Greek troops into Western Anatolia from the enclave of Smirna, about which there was complicit silence at the Spa Conference for the “Megala idea” of Venizelos. Independent of this contingent was an Italian infantry battalion in Constantinople, and another one was assigned in April 1919 to garrison Konya under British command. Great Britain did not establish any zone of influence; but within the terms of the ‘Sykes-Picot’ agreement, they took over almost all Mesopotamia, thus reinforcing their firm hand over oil resources of the region, and strengthening imperial control out to the Far East.
On 13 November 1918, the Allies landed in Constantinople with 2,616 British, 540 French, 470 Italian troops, supported by 50 ships (two days later, this grew to 167 ships).
On February 8, 1919, the French general Franchet d’ Espèrey, Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces in the East, officially entered the city on a white horse, emulating Mehmed the Conqueror’s entrance in 1453 after the Fall of Constantinople, thus signifying that Ottoman sovereignty over the imperial city was over.
One year, after the Allies numbered 51,300 troops (27,419 British, 19,069 French, 3,992 Italians and 795 Greeks), garrisoning not only the city but also the neutralized zone of the Straits, largely assigned to units of the 122nd and 156th French Infantry Divisions and 28th British Division.
The Greek and Turkish police and gendarmerie forces operating in neutralized area were subordinate to Allied control; and the Constantinople area was garrisoned by British MPs (in Pera), The French Gendarmes (in Istanbul) and Italian Carabinieri (in Scutari) were supported by Turkish Jandarma personnel.
The Corps d’Occupation de Constantinople (COC) was formally set up on 6 November 1920, after more than one year of de facto occupation, when the drawdown of the Allied forces drastically reduced the level of their strength. Nominally multinational, it was nevertheless a harsh fight between the French and the British.
The COC was assisted by a military committee, formed by the commander of the national contingents and with three High Commissioners (in which, generally, the French and British were military and the Italian a diplomat). The job of the COC was focused on occupation duties and was affected by the bitter and growing polarization between the French and the British, while the Italian presence was little more than nominal.
The growing split among the Allies is widely attributed to the fact that the partition of Turkey had given to France too small a share. The Italians, too, were dismayed to the concession made by London to Athens, at Rome’s expense. This discontent gave rise to Franco-Italian support of the Turkish nationalist movement, both in Anatolia and in Constantinople, even if at the beginning, Paris supported to the end Greek expansionist dreams.
At the regional level, France had strong grievances against Britain, for it felt that British policies were contrary to prior agreements. For example, Britain did not want to share oil exploitations in the Mosul area, and, according to Paris, it stirred up Emir Faisal (the leader of the so-called “Arab revolt”) to attack French troops in Syria. In other words, France labelled the British approach as selfish and imperialist, although Paris applied the same policies in many other regions, like the Balkans, the Baltic Sea, Silesia, Poland, against not only their former enemies, like Germany, but also their present allies like Italy (and Britain).
The Allies had begun to split already in 1919, because of competing interests in Syria, Mesopotamia, Cilicia and the Aegean. TRhus, both France and Italy were eager to dismantle Turkey as a unitary state. But when their interests were undercut, they changed their plans. Also, Italy, because of prevalent domestic issues, confined its imperial aims in Turkey to just seeking out profitable economic concessions.
In the summer, the internal situation in Italy became untenable and Rome started the withdrawal of its troops from Anatolia and abandoned the dreams of territorial expansion in the Levant. The last troops left Anatolia in 1922. This happened mainly for two reasons. First, Italy obtained the Dodecanese islands, and second, there was a growing anti-Greek policy in Rome. But Italy kept small contingents in Constantinople and Adrianople, with a Carabinieri unit in Constantinopole until the general evacuation of foreign troops in October, 1923.
The functionality of the COC was seriously affected by the arrival, in the region, of 150.000 White Russian refugees (the army and civilians who fled after the defeat of General Wrangel in the Crimea), as well as the issue of the remnants of the Tsarist Black Sea Navy.
The other major, and final, crisis of the COC came after the defeat of Greek forces in Anatolia. The Greek-Turkish War saw a major shift in alliances among the Allies. At the beginning, France supported the demands of Greece, as Britain, in order to keep firm control over Turkey, kept out France. Then, Britain supported Greek expansion while. France, of course, along with Italy, moved to helping nationalist Turks.
The crisis was the trigger event of a failed and polarized political alliance, and the military contingents in the neutral zone operated in a disconntected way, reflecting the divergent stances of London, Paris and Rome vis-à-vis the development of the Greek-Turkish war. The final Allied withdrawal came under gloomy conditions, marked by ethno-religious violence between the Greeks and the Turks. When the withdrawal was formally signed into place, it ended the Allied entente of WWI.
The Russian Quagmire
Looking at the issue from an ethical or legal point of view, the Allied intervention in Russia was even worst than it was for the Ottoman Empire, where, at least, there existed a set of documents and treaties. For Russia, there were only ideological fears, old playbook and indolent behavior.
On 23 December 1917, the day after the beginning of the Brest Litovsk talks, delegates of France and Great Britain in Paris concluded a convention for the dismemberment of Russia and the establishment of zones of influence. London looked to the Baltic provinces and the Caucasus (especially its oil); France chose the Ukraine, from Belarus to Bessarabia and Donetz (for the iron, coal, iron and steel basins), as well as the Black Sea shores including Odessa and Crimea.
Soon after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 a three-year Civil War broke out in Russia. The initial phase of the war lasted for one year, and it was marked by rapidly shifting front lines and sporadic engagements by small units. At the beginning, the Bolsheviks generally expanded from the few urban areas in their hands to root out centres of opposition in the periphery of the vast country. This expansion began in the winter of 1917-1918, and it led to the formation of the anti-Bolshevik Volunteer Army, led by Generals Mikhail Alekseyev and Lavr Kornilov in the Don Cossack region, thus creating the southern front of the war.
Half a year later this was followed by the revolt of the Czechoslovak Legion (despite the name, in reality it was a force of the size of an army corps) on the mid-Volga and Siberia, which assisted the formation of two anti-Bolshevik governments, each with its own army – the Komuch in Samara and the Siberian Government in Omsk.
The Red Army of Lenin’s Bolshevik government was rapidly formed to replace the irregular Red Guard partisan units only at the end of this phase, in the fall of 1918.
The second and decisive stage of the Civil War lasted from March to December 1919. First, the White armies of Admiral Alexander Kolchak in Siberia and General Denikin in Southern Russia advanced resolutely toward Moscow (the last one appeared to be the most decisive push against the Reds). In the Caucasus and Crimea operated General Wrangel (probably the best of the White generals). In the North-West General Yudenich tried to attack Petrograd.
As in many other civil wars, foreign powers intervened in the conflict. Britain played a leading role in this intervention and had a significant effect on the course of the war. Without this foreign intervention on the White side, the superiority of numbers in manpower and weaponry of the Bolsheviks would have quickly overwhelmed their opponents.
British Intervention In Southern Russia, 1918-1920
Despite massive support, the entire British action remained uncertain and split between an ideological battle against Bolshevism and the strategic imperative to protect India and investments in the oil industry in the Middle East (Persia and Mesopotamia). Consequently, the action of Great Britain, while strong in Southern Russia, and massive (two divisions) in the Caucasus and Central Asia – in Northern Russia and Eastern Russia (Siberia) it a lot less intense.
Further, the controversial demobilization scheme, the requirement to keep the public unaware of the extent of the military efforts, and the risk of bolshevism infecting the troops contributed to the incertitude of the British (and French) actions.
From November 1918 the Allies succeeded in supplying regular provisions to the White Armies mainly through the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. The British military mission arrived in South Russia in late 1918, and provided General Denikin’s White army with an enormous amount of matériel. This included full British army kit for half a million men, 1,200 field guns with almost two million rounds of ammunition, 6,100 machine guns, 200,000 rifles with 500 million rounds of ammunition, 629 lorries and motorcars, 279 motorcycles, 74 tanks, six armoured cars, 200 aircraft, 12 500-bed hospitals, 25 field hospitals and a vast amount of signal and engineer equipment. All this was sufficient for an army of 250,000 men and it was much more than Denikin was ever able to use, as the combat strength of his army never exceeded 150,000 men. Ammunitions destined for South Russia also included 25,000 poison gas shells. Churchill had described mustard gas as “ideal weapon against our beastly enemy.” But British personnel were instructed to use it only if the Bolsheviks started gas warfare first.
The British mission also organized the training and equipping of White Russian troops with British weapons. This made the material aid much more effective. Even in small numbers, many of the British instructors, following a personal and ideological commitment, took part in fighting the Bolsheviks, despite the orders of their government.
In real terms, financial and material support from Great Britain pushed Denikin’s army in a far more favourable position than the Bolsheviks in 1919, and very close to being the key element of the victory of the Whites against the Bolsheviks. But the White army of Denikin suffered, like the Tsarist army, of which it was but an extention. This led to serious problems. White officers were unimaginative; their mindset remained obsolete; and they were incapable of organizing the logistics of their army. There were also fundamental defects in the morale of the White troops. These limits affected all the other White armies operating against the Bolsheviks, without mentioning the bitter rivalries among the White generals themselves.
In addition to all the political mistakes of Denikin’s movement and a general inability to adjust to the complex situation in Revolutionary Russia, the Whites suffered a clear military defeat. In South Russia, the Whites were defeated not because of the lack of British aid, but rather despite it; and their defeat was decisive for the victory of the Reds elsewhere.
The British presence in Southern Russia, as mentioned, was limited to few hundred specialists and trainers and non-combat troops (72 servicemen -18 Royal Navy, 41 British Army, 13 Royal Air Force personnel – were killed in South Russia in 1918-1920).
Further, they were scattered over the immense area of Southern Russia, where several White units operated, of which the Denikin one was the larger, but also Wrangler’s that extended to the Caucasus.
The missed arrival of a massive British combat force led to the first rift between the Whites and London. British combat troops were deployed, and in a limited number, only in the South Caucasus to secure the oilfields there (the Baku area); and this situation increased the suspicions of White Russians over the real, future aims of British aid.
The real strategic reason for the massive support of Denikin, who operated mainly in the “zone of influence” assigned to the French, was because of the failure of previous, but also because of the defeat of Admiral Kolchiak’s offensive in Siberia. But lagely these troops came to protect the interests of London over the oil resources in Baku and surrounding region.
After Denikin’s army was decisively defeated at Orel in October 1919 (some 400 km south of Moscow), the White forces in southern Russia were in constant retreat, reaching the Crimea in March 1920. In July 1920, the White forces left Crimea for Constantinople. This ended the British Mission in Southern Russia.
The fate of the British military mission in South Russia followed the fate of the Whites, with constant relocation of the training teams under growing pressure from the Reds. First this progressive impairment, and later the demise of Denikin’s and Wrangel armies impacted the broader plans of London to set up “friendly” states in the South Caucasus – the real strategic objectives of British military expedition in the former allied territory.
At the end of August 1919, the British withdrew from Baku (the small British naval presence was also withdrawn from the Caspian Sea), leaving only 3 battalions at Batum. After a British garrison at Enzeli (on the Persian Caspian coast) was taken prisoner by Bolshevik forces on 19 May 1920, Lloyd George finally insisted on a withdrawal from Batum early in June 1920, thus disbanding the 27th Division (The British Salonika Army was split within Macedonia [22nd Division, disbanded in 1919], the Danube [26th Division, disbanded on May 1919], Turkey (28th Division, disbanded on December 1923], and the Caucasus [27th Division, disbanded in 1920]). Financial concerns forced a British withdrawal from Persia in the spring of 1921.
The French Intervention In Southern Russia
The French intervention in Southern Russia was initiated in February 1918, with 50 million rubles in gold to the Ukrainian Rada. But the first official sign of French preparation for direct military intervention in Southern Russia came on October 7, 1918, when Clemenceau designated General Henri Berthelot to head a military mission with responsibility for operations in Romania and the Ukraine. While an important task of this expedition was to assure the retreat of German and Austro-Hungarian forces from the Ukraine and Romania, Clemenceau’s instructions stressed the need to set up an economic encirclement of the Bolsheviks and help along the fall of the new government in Russia.
However, French intervention in support of the Whites (also in this case for ideological reasons to hinder the path of the Reds) was much shorter and much more confused than by the British – and was shut down only after a few months.
The French expedition had come to Southern Russia under three assumptions, which emerged to be totally baseless: A) that the Whites representing a majority of the people; B) that the Russian people welcomed Allied intervention against Bolshevik; and C) that the bulk of the fight against the Reds would be on the White forces, requiring only moral and technical assistance from the French forces.
In fact, the Ukrainians preferred the Bolsheviks to the Whites; the local population resented Allied intervention; and the Whites had limited capabilities. Disillusionment with intervention increased as officers and soldiers alike realized that the entire population of Southern Russia looked upon their presence with undisguised hostility.
As one officer in Sebastopol declared, Bolshevik propaganda had little effect upon the troops, but the hostile attitude of the local population had a profound impact on troops already exahusted by the tough Salonika campaign.
At initial meetings with Russian Whites, Berthelot promised up to 12 Allied divisions as expeditionary forces in Southern Russia, when in reality only three divisions were in theory available. However, six weeks after first landing in Odessa, the Allied force did not exceed 3.000 ground troops (three infantry regiments [176th, 58th French, 1st Regiment de marche africain, elements from the 10th Algerian Regiment, the 21st Chasseurs Aborigines, the 129th Senegalese Batallion, the Batallion Chasseurs d’Indochine, 4th Chasseurs á cheval d’Afrique]; other support elements [the 19th and 242nd Colonial Artillery, 7th Engineer Regiment]; landing parties of the French naval squadron, augmented by a sizeable Greek contingent, and smaller units of Polish, Romanian and Czech troops). But they did seize Nikolaev, Kherson and Tiraspol, so that Allied forces controlled an arc of territory in the Western Ukraine, along the northern shore of the Black Sea, between the Dniester and Dniepr rivers.
The absence of reinforcements further increased the French command’s skepticism about intervention. But the major problems were the open and tough hostility of the local populations, as a result of Bolshevik propaganda, and the splits among the anti-Reds, the split among the White generals (who wanted to re-establish Tsarist Russia), and local Ukrainian independence movements (split among different factions, running from ultraconservative to anarchist groups).
As among the British, the French also had several dozen advisors and staff personnel, who similar to their British counterparts expressed criticism and doubts about the performance of White leadership and troops and even White military capabilities.
By March 1919, pressure frm the Bolsheviks forced the Whites (and consequently the French and Greeks) to evacuate initially Kherson, and then Nikolaev, putting serious doubt on the validity of the entire operation in the Black Sea. Red attacks over Odessa only grew greater.
The anti-Red coalition was marked more and more by bitter rivalries, which quickly undermined the White armies; Greek forces were more concerned about the safety of the Greek national community there and the beginning of the operation in Asia Minor against the Turks. This weakend further the French-led effort in Southern Russia.
The situation became so untenable that General D’Esperey went urgently to Odessa from Constantinople, realizing that were no other option than to withdraw from there (the evacuation came finally on 6 April). But he did this without consulting the Whites (Denikin was informed ex post facto by Franchet d”Esperey).
The Odessa evacuation left the Crimea as the only remaining area of direct French military intervention. Clemenceau had urged to hold the Crimea as a bastion for future actions in Southern Russia, again creating the impression of a firm French commitment. Yet, from the outset, the French presence in the Crimea had been marked by the same difficulties that plagued the intervention in the Ukraine – but this time, there was the brave White General Wrangel, who could not hold, despite considerable efforts to re-establish good relations with the local populations (that fully supported the Reds). This led him to a desperate evacuation to Constantinople at the end of April.
The withdrawal from Sebastopol was marked by a serious disciplinary situation, especially on board French naval ships operating in the Black Sea. This was the persistent and growing mutinous attitude among the French forces operating in the area.
The Black Sea mutinies have acquired legendary dimension among Marxist historians, largely as a result of André Marty’s somewhat exaggerated claims, and as a result of the “martyrdom” of those sailors condemned by military tribunals. There is no doubt, however, that the mutinies were serious and extensive.
The first uprisings took place among ground troops. On the 4th of February, the 58th Infantry Regiment refused to fight at Tiraspol on the far bank of the Dniester.
On March 8th, two companies of the 176th Infantry Regiment rejected an order to attack at Kherson. April 5 saw the same refusal among elements of the 19th Colonial Artillery Regiment in Odessa, where sappers of the 7th Engineer Regiment fraternized with, and left equipment for, the Bolsheviks. Then, from 10 to 30 April, major mutinies of sailors take place. In Romania, at Galatz, the chief mechanic André Marty planned to seize the torpedo FNS Protet, lock up the officers and rally the Bolsheviks to Sevastopol. The plot was discovered, he was arrested on April 16, and sentenced to twenty years of hard labor.
On April 17, on the cruiser FNS France, protests broke out; four sailors were put in the brig. But two days later, the revolting crew freed them, elected delegates, and demanded the return to Toulon.
On the 20th, the red flag was hoisted on FNS France, FNS Jean-Bart, FNS Justice, along with the singing of the L’Internationale. In the afternoon, sailors who had demonstrated in Sevastopol with the population returned fire of Greek soldiers. Calm returned in the days following; and the delegates, who initially obeyed, saw their role decrease. But FNS Jean-Bart as well as FNS France returned to Toulon and Bizerte.
Another mutiny took place on the 25th on-board FNS Waldeck-Rousseau stationed at Odessa. A committee of sailors decided to revolt, demanded the freedom of Marty and the return to France. In the following days, control was exerted over buildings in Odessa, as well as over all ships in the Black Sea. But the excitement continues into May and June, in the naval bases of Toulon, Brest, Bizerte, Greece (and on board FNS Guichen, led by Charles Tillon) and even in Vladivostok.
As mentioned, the Sebastopol episode marked a climax in a series of mutinies, and rather extensive indiscipline among troops throughout the Ukrainian and Crimean interventions; and the French command was well aware of the low morale and war-weariness among the ranks. Whether this attitude reflected a widespread sympathy for Bolshevism is less clear. The majority of the French soldiers had no desire to fight in Russia and demanded repatriation.
However, some fully supported the Bolsheviks; and the demonstration in Sebastopol revealed a degree of political support for the Russian Revolution that was of considerable significance. But it is not clear that a majority of the soldiers and sailors were prepared to embrace the revolution at this point. Above all, it is an exaggeration to claim that the mutiny in Sebastopol was because of an untenable military situation. Instead, it was because of several factors, already discussed, without mentioning the lack of political support of France from other Allies despite the fury of Clemenceau. The French military intervention in the Ukraine was a sobering lesson in the perils of intervening in another nation’s civil wars.
The action of Allied powers, in the two cases discussed, revealed the persistence of an imperialistic stance of some countries, despite their exhaustion and their formal adherence to the 14 Points Declaration of President Woodrow Wilson.
This contradiction is the result of a wild era which existed well before the breakout of WWI, behind the façade of economic and social developments at the end of the 19th and the beginning of 20th centuries.
Turkish Post-War And Straits Occupations 1918-1923
26.04.1916: Agreement of St.-Jean-de-Maurienne between France, Italy and Great Britain.
16.05.1916: Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and Great Britain.
30.10.1918: Armistice of Mudros: Turkey to cease hostilities, demobilize, open the Bosporus Straits, and repatriate POWs. The Armistice found the British occupying most non-Turkish territory of the Ottoman Empire (Palestine, Mesopotamia, Kurdistan), and Arab insurgents in control of the Hejaz and parts of Syria.
12.11.1918: French troops land in Constantinople.
13.11.1918: British troops land in Constantinople.
08.12.1918: Allied occupation of the Bosporus, the Dardanelles, the eastern coast of the Sea of Marmara, islands of Imros, Lemnos, Samothrace, Tenedos, and 15 km deep into the eastern shores; the zone of the Straits is demilitarized (by Greek and Turkish forces) but garrisoned by Allied forces.
18.01.1919: Peace Conference opens in Versailles.
Jan. 1919: Turkish garrison in Medina surrenders to the forces of the Arab revolt.
03.02.1919: In Paris, Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos demands the entire of East Thrace and the Aegean shores of Anatolia, including Izmir to be annexed to Greece.
07.02.1919: Italian troops land in Galata (Constantinople).
08.02.1919: French General Franchet d’Esperey, commander of the Allied Army (later the Constantinople Occupation Corps), enters in Constantinople mounted on a white horse.
04.03.1919: Damat Ferit Pasha, brother-in-law of the Sultan, appointed as the new Grand Vizir (Prime Minister).
29.03.1919: Italian troops land in Antalya.
08.04.1919: British Foreign Minister, Lord Balfour, proposes Istanbul become a neutral zone under the administration of the League of Nations (also French Prime Minister Aristide Briand proposes the creation of a “free city,” a sort of protectorate under the League. The city of Constantinople would be a first free city in 1920. As such, Constantinople would have its own municipal government, but which would be devoid of any of those functions of government exercised by a sovereign state, such as, defense and foreign relations).
30.04.1919: Sultan Vahidettin sends Mustafa Kemal to Anatolia as Inspector-General.
06.05.1919: Allied powers agree to allow Greeks to occupy Smyrna.
15.05.1919: Smyrna occupied by the Greek army. Journalist Hasan Tahsin shoots a Greek flag bearer, firing the first bullet of the Turkish resistance.
16.05.1919: Mustafa Kemal leaves Constantinople.
19.05.1919: Mustafa Kemal arrives in Samsun. Turkish War of Independence begins.
24.05.1919: Demonstration at Sultanahmet in Istanbul against the occupation of Smyna.
22.06.1919: Mustafa Kemal issues the Amasya Declaration stating that the independence of the nation will be saved once more by the determination and decisiveness of the people.
28.06.1919: Treaty of Versailles signed by Germany.
23.07/07.08.1919: Erzurum Congress. It is decided that there will a struggle with the enemy of the people in the Eastern provinces which are an inseparable part of the homeland.
10.10.1919: Allied forces officially take military control of Western Thrace.
22.10.1919: Inter Allied administration of Western Thrace begins with French General Charpy appointed Governor.
04-11.09. 1919: Sivas Congress. A mutual decision about the “homeland being an indivisible whole” is reached. All the local resistance organizations in the country are united and a “Committee of Representatives” is formed.
01.11.1919: Grand Vizir Damat Ferit Paşa resigns.
27.12.1919: Mustafa Kemal arrives in Ankara.
12.01.1920: Opening session of the last Ottoman Parliament.
10.03.1920: Allied Military Administration of Constantinople and Straits Zone formally established.
16.03.1920: Constantinople officially occupied by Allied forces.
20.03.1920: Italian troops withdraw from Konia.
05.04.1920: Damat Ferit Paşa reappointed as Grand Vizir.
11.04.1920: Ottoman Parliament dissolved by Sultan Vahidettin.
19-26.04.1920: The San Remo Conference of the Allied Supreme Council determines the allocation of the League of Nations mandates for administration of the former Ottoman ruled lands of the Middle East by the victorious powers.
23.04.1920: The Turkish Grand National Assembly opens in Ankara.
20.05.1920: Greece annexes Western Thrace.
22.06.1920: Greek offensive in Anatolia begins.
08.07.1920: Greek forces occupy Bursa.
12.07.1920: Greece moves into Eastern Thrace, setting up Adrianople as headquarters.
15.07.1920: Greek forces occupy Edirne and the entire East Thrace.
10.08.1920: Ottoman government signs the Treaty of Sèvres with the Allied nations. Hejaz, Armenia and Assyria are to become independent. Mesopotamia and Palestine are assigned under mandate to the tutelage of the UK, Lebanon and an enlarged Syria to that of France. The Dodecanese and Rhodes with portions of southern Anatolia are to pass to Italy, while Thrace and Western Anatolia, including Smyrna will become part of Greece. The Bosphorus, Dardanelles and Sea of Marmara are to be demilitarized and internationalized, and the Ottoman army is to be restricted to a strength of 50,000 men. The treaty is rejected by the Turkish republican movement in Ankara.
06.11.1920: The Corps d’Occupation de Constantinople (COC) formally is set up, led by French General Franchet d’Esperey (frmr. CinC of Eastern Allied Forces).
03.12.1920: Ankara signs the Gümrü Peace Agreement with the Republic of Armenia.
09-11.01.1921: First Battle of İnönü. Greek advance inside Anatolia halted.
20.01.1921: The first Turkish Constitution is ratified by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey.
21.02/12.03.1921: London Conference. Representatives of both Istanbul and Ankara governments are invited to the conference which aims to revise the Treaty of Sèvres. It does not achieve any results.
16.03.1921: Bolshevik Russia recognizes the new Turkish State.
27-20.03.1921: Second Battle of İnönü. Greek offensive fails.
25.05.1921: Italians troops withdraw from Marmaris.
21.06.1921: Italians withdraw from the Antalya region.
05.07.1921: The city of Antalya is returned to the Turkish government by Italian military authorities.
10.07.1921: Greek forces launch a new offensive;
18.07.1921: The British General Harrington is made CinC of COC, replacing the French General Charpy; the (British) Black Sea Army is re-named as British COC of Constantinople; the 28th British division is dissolved.
19.07.1921: Turkish forces retreat towards Ankara.
10.08.1921: The Allied Supreme Council declares neutrality with respect to the Turkish-Greek conflict;
23.08/13.09.1921: Battle of Sakarya. Greek forces retreat after a failed offensive.
20.10.1921: Peace agreement signed between Turkey and France.
23.10.1921: Treaty of Kars between Turkey and the USSR. Turkey cedes the city of Batumi to the USSR in return for sovereignty over the cities of Kars and Ardaha.
11.01.1922: Mustapha Kemal proclaims the abolition of the Ottoman sultanate and the establishment of the Turkish Republic; Sultan Mohammed VI flees Constantinople on board a British warship.
31.05.1922: Last Italian troops leave the area of Antalya.
05-19.07.1922: USMC troops from the USS Arizona land to guard the US Consulate in Constantinople;
26-30.08.1922: Battle of Dumlupınar. Decisive Turkish victory against the Greek forces.
09.09.1922: Turkish troops take Smyrna; massive killing of Greek and Armenian populations.
15.09.1922: British government appeals to the Dominions for military support in the Turkish crisis, but the Dominions decline; France and Italy also refuse help.
15.09.1922: Greek occupation ends.
16.09.1922: A British force lands at Canakkale, Turkey.
03-11.10.1922: Convention of Mudania; the Allies agree to return Eastern Thrace and Adrianople to Turkey, and Turkey accepts the neutralization of the Straits under international control.
11.10.1922: Armistice of Mudanya signed between Turkey, Italy, France and Britain. Greece accedes to the armistice three days later. East Thrace as far as the Maritsa River and Edirne are handed over by Greece to Turkey. Turkish sovereignty over Constantinople and the Dardanelles is recognized.
20.10.1922: Peace Conference opens in Lausanne.
01.11.1922: The Sultanate is abolished.
17.11.1922: Sultan Vahidettin leaves Istanbul on board the British warship Malaya.
04.02.1923: Talks in Lausanne interrupted because of Turkish protest about the contents of the Lausanne conference.
23.04.1923: Talks in Lausanne resume.
24.04.1923: Treaty of Lausanne signed between Turkey, Greece and other countries that fought WWI and the Turkish Independence War. Turkey recovers full sovereign rights over its territory.
10.06.1923: Turkey takes possession of Constantinople.
24.07.1923: Treaty of Lausanne formally replaces Treaty of Sèvres.
06.10.1923: Occupation forces begin withdrawal from Constantinople.
13.10.1923: Ankara declared as the capital of the new Turkish State.
06.10.1923: Units from the Turkish 3rd Corps, commanded by Şükrü Naili Pasha enter Constantinople.
23.10.1923: Last allies (British contingent) troops evacuate Constantinople.
29.10.1923: The Republic of Turkey is proclaimed.
Enrico Magnani, PhD is a UN officer who specializes in military history, politico-military affairs, peacekeeping and stability operations. (The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations).
The image shows, “The Flight of the Bourgeoisie from Novorossiysk in 1920,” by Ivan Vladimirov; painted in 1920.
Of all the countries Adolf Hitler invaded, none was able to muster a sustained and successful military counterattack, except one – Russia. When the Nazis launched Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, it was a massive three-pronged invasion from the North (to capture Leningrad), from the South (to take the Ukraine), and through the center (to seize Moscow).
The Germans and their allies came in great force – with 3.75 million troops, along with 4,000 tanks, and 750,000 horses (we must bear in mind that the German military was only partially mechanized in 1941). It is also well known that the Russians were not ready, to say the least, largely because Hitler was the only man Stalin truly trusted and could not bring himself to believe that the Nazi leader had ordered the attack. Stalin kept insisting that the onslaught was the action of rogue German generals, and Hitler would put a stop to it all, when he found out what was being done to his friend, Stalin. In fact, the reality of Hitler’s betrayal hit Stalin very hard, and he disappeared to his dacha, in a rare fit of uncertainty, leaving the country leaderless during a crucial time.
The Germans likewise squandered any advantages they might have had because of their ideology, for the invasion was at first seen by some (especially in the Ukraine) as a liberation from Stalinism. But when the reality of the true purpose of the invasion began very quickly to be implemented – the clearing out of the land of all its inhabitants, for eventual settlement by Germans – resolve toughened and military resistance began in earnest.
Hitler had come not simply to take control and include Russia in his “empire” – rather, he had come to clear the land of its native inhabitants so that he might settle it with Germans. Faced with the prospect of annihilation in their own country, how could the Russians not know the war foisted upon them as anything other than “patriotic?” Hence, the Russian term for the Second World War (a rather banal designation) is the Great Patriotic War. It was a fight to the death for the Russian homeland – for the Rodina, that emotion-laden term, which means so much more than “motherland” or “fatherland,” for it means all that binds one to family and individual purpose.
Despite early successes, by December 1941, the Germans knew they had begun what they had never wanted – a war on two fronts. The next four years were grim and bloody on the Eastern Front, with unimaginable casualty rates on both sides.
The total war dead for Russia is estimated to be between 26 to 42 million, both civilians and military. For the Germans, losses on the Eastern Front are estimated to be about 2.7 million. The immense Russian sacrifice finally led to victory, when the Red Army took Berlin on May 2, 1945 (Hitler had committed suicide a few days earlier, on April 30th).
What was the nature of the Russian resolve? What inner strength did the Russians living and fighting through those fateful years draw upon? In the grand sweep of history, the sacrifice, the courage, the suffering of individuals is often little remembered. The millions slaughtered were ordinary human beings forced into the maw of a war, from which there was no escape.
This combination of readability and scholarship continues in Russia is Burning. The anthology is a dual-text, Russian and facing-page translations, with two essays, at the beginning and end, both of which contextualize the role and purpose of poetry within the broader extent of the Great Patriotic War. The selections are placed into four categories: “Seven Poets Killed,” that is, poems of those killed in the war; “Voice Heard,” which include poems and trench-songs that were widely known and loved by the ordinary fighting man or woman (the Red Army had 800,000 women); “Muted Voice,” which presents poems written by emigres, by prisoners in the Gulags, and verses that were never meant to be published, that is, written “for the desk-drawer;” and lastly, “The War Remembered,” which traces the years after 1945, during which poetry took on the task of healing the Russian soul, by leading it out of its trauma and into the promise of peace.
All the poems in the anthology have head-notes that give historical and thematic context to each poet and his/her poems, This is a very helpful and rather elegant way to handle the necessary job of informing the reader, while deftly avoiding the trap of information-density that is often found in such endeavors, and which break-up the reading-flow. These head-notes also serve to stress what should be stressed – the poem itself. All-too-often, translators do not know how to wear their learning lightly and opt for intrusive footnotes, or worse, endnotes. This anthology overcomes this wonkiness by including all the pertinent information needed right in the head-notes, so that the reading experience is unobtrusive of academic paraphernalia.
Though the poems in the three sections are a wide assortment of style, sensibility and perspective, all of them nevertheless are united by a common theme – that of Russia as the Motherland, the Rodina, upon whose breast is cast all the suffering, the tragedy, the bloodshed. This means that individualized instances of courage, of sacrifice, of struggle, of disappointment, of helplessness, of loneliness, but also of hope for an end to all cruel things – all these are given meaning within the embrace of the Motherland.
These poems speak not to so much of soil and of the people, concerns that marked so much of earlier Russian literary expression, but of invoking that final reserve of resolve which might lead to overcoming the enemy. In the swirl of the Great Patriotic War, there is only Russia itself – bereft of everything. It is now the task of her sons and daughters to return what was always rightfully hers – peace, happiness, and fulfillment. But it is a giving back that can only come about one hand at a time, for a hand is both limited in action but limitless in the results of that action:
Under a hillock, in a field, a stern young boy from Moscow fell and quietly, his cap slid off his bullet-riddled head. … Departing for another world. not very far from that in which he grew, he clutched his warm, native earth in his already stiffening hand. … The highest criterion by which we can possibly be judged will be that handful of earth clutched in that young grey palm. (Yaroslav Smelyakov, “The Judge”)
The “highest criterion” is not found in the death of young soldier, but in his clutched hand, which cannot be loosened – for he grips not agony, but the fruit of his sacrifice, and his burial therefore looks forward to resurrection which will be peace. Such is the holy wisdom that cruelty oft-times brings.
The Great Patriotic War became a grand shout of defiance by patriots, who knew just enough to never accept defeat, because a quality that inhabited each of them, their Russianness, could never be quiet because it had been betrayed:
We know what’s at stake and how great the foe’s power, And what now is coming to pass. Every clock shows the same time – it’s courage hour! And our courage will hold to the last. The bullets can kill us, but cannot deter; Though our houses fall, yet we will stand – Through it all we will keep you alive, Russian word, Mighty language of our Russian land. Your sounds will remain pure and free on our tongues, To be passed on unfettered through ages to come. Forever! (Anna Akhmatova, “Courage,” 23 February 1942, Tashkent)
And it this wisdom which shall free Russia – a wisdom that can never come cheaply, as Olga Berggolts pointed out in 1941:
Just as you are now: emaciated, dauntless, in a hastily tied kerchief, holding a purse as you go out under the bombardment.
Daria Vlasyevna, the whole land will be renewed by your strength. The name of this strength of yours is “Russia.” Like Russia, stand and take heart! (“Conversation with a Neighbour”)
This wisdom Elena Shirman, who died early in the conflict, in 1942, also knew: “…A boom – /and shards of broken streets come tumbling./… Someone will raise me from the pavement and kindly say,/ “You must have stumbled.” Such is the Rodina, the Motherland, which the community, and the family.
A helping hand, kindness, while a world shatters is the embodiment of what an earlier poet, in an earlier world conflict, called, “the pity of war,” because the 20th-century invented warfare that was scientific and industrialized, which therefore concerned itself with precision barrages, shock-and-awe, genocide, carpet-bombing, scorched earth, total war, and the headlong rush of the displaced, running away from death and often straight into death. The older message is now commonplace, and hardly ever brings comment – kill to build a better world:
All the world is going to wrack and ruin. What, you’ve lost your nerve? Oh don’t be shy! Come and crush it all in one fell stroke, Pulverize, make stardust in the sky!
Poison it with mustard gas or, better, Bomb the whole damn thing to smithereens. Do away at once with all this art and Anguish of our planet – by all means! (Georgy Ivanov, “All the World is Going to Wrack and Ruin”)
It is also important to bear in mind that poetry no longer had a purpose or function among soldiers of other Allied nations by the time the Second World War came around. Certainly, there were soldier-poets (John Gillespie Magee, John Jarmain, Keith Douglas, Alun Lewis, John Ciardi, Henry Lee, Drummond Allison), but in the English-speaking world, whatever energy poetry once possessed now yielded to the urgent immediacy of film and photography. World War Two is known for its images; not its verse – and so unlike the First World War, where the entire experience of the trenches is still today seen through the poet’s eye; for who can imagine that earlier war without evoking the lines of John McCrae, Wilfrid Owen, Julian Grenfell, Siegfried Sassoon, and Isaac Rosenberg? Within a generation, sensibilities had changed so much.
For Russians, however, poetry and song retained what the English-speaking world had lost – words spun into meter and rhyme and often carried along with music bore meaning deeper into the soul than any image possibly could. The Nazi invasion was devasting, but not because it was murderous (for the Russian people had already endured Stalin’s purges) – for it denied the surety of community. Though Stalin killed very effectively, there yet remained for people the strength of community, a bond that can sustain no matter how bleak the reality beyond. But when a community is shattered, there is only flotsam of individual lives, seeking nothing more than survival.
It is this ruination that Arseny Tarkovsky understood only too well in 1942:
Say a German gunner will get me in the back, or a piece of shrapnel will take out both my legs,
or a teenaged SS trooper will shoot me in the gut – anyway, I’m done for, there is no way out.
I won’t go down to glory – I’ll be unshod, unknown, Looking through my frozen eyes at the bloodied snow.
Thus, when the Nazis smashed their way nearly to Moscow, they came stirring a witches’ cauldron of cruelty and annihilation. Despite outward differences, both Hitler and Stalin were driven by ideology. At first their ideology coalesced (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), but in 1941 it fell apart with Operation Barbarossa. In the millstones of Nazism and Stalinism, what could the Russian people use to rally the will to survive, live, and then overcome? Poetry alone was the answer, for it provided purpose, and grim determination.
But in the meantime, there was only the business of endless brutality, so chillingly captured by Nikolai Panchenko in “The Girl Worked in our Unit as a Barber,” written years later in 1961, a memory seared into the minds of those who were there and saw a young woman raped to death by men of a unit that had sided with the Germans against the Communists. It is a brutal poem that says so much, with just a few words: “They gagged her with their fetid footcloths… Our unit used to call her ‘babyface.’ And then comes the revenge of finding the rapists and methodically killing them: “…we burst into that village in tight fistfuls…. Explosions, howls, shots…. My bayonet was bent,/ my bullets lost./ We got in the hollow of the banya,/ each of us fought to kill as many as we could./ With these white teeth/ I bit through Adam’s apples…. The girl dozed off under a greatcoat…. As if she could see anything at all…. The HQ sent us medals, one and all…. We dug them down into a hillock/ right beside her.”
Stalin understood the problem of morale well, and very quickly set up an entire “industry” of poetry, which could be fed to the people to give them the will and strength to fight and survive. Bloshteyn, in her excellent end essay, therefore observes: “War poems were published both in the civilian press…and the military press… by 1944 there were about 800 military newspapers with an output of three million issues in all… there were poems in the informational leaflets… poems on propaganda posters… Poems were read on the radio… in concert halls… poems were put to music, performed by… popular singers… sung in dugouts and trenches… All these platforms created a demand for wartime poetry that was unprecedented and unparalleled not only in the Soviet Union but in any other country.”
Even in the territory held by the Germans, there was poetry published in “270 [partisan newspapers] by 1944.” It must be borne in mind that Soviet rule was not a grassroots demand – but rather imposed upon the Russian people after a long drawn-out, bloody Civil War, in which slaughter-exhaustion alone led to any sort of peace. Thus, as mentioned already, the Germans were initially welcomed by many who hoped that they had come to throw off the Communist yoke. This is the larger reason behind what is known as the “collaborators” – those who helped the Germans against the Communists. But such collaboration was a stillborn dream, as Boris Filippov came to understand too late, in 1945:
Town after town after town, just houses of cards bunched together. There’s nothing I want out of life… No one… Nowhere… Never…
I’m pushing my rickety cart, on the road across German land, clover stems nod as I pass, mosquitoes keen a lament.
There is nothing I want out of life – Never… Nowhere… No one… Angry villages bunched up together. Town after town after town…
And when the Germans were pushed back, all the way deep inside their own homeland; and when Berlin fell, Hitler killed himself and the war ended, what then? Shakespeare was right to speak of the dogs of war let loose, for the ravening of humanity that must come with industrialized slaughter can bear little healing. Torn flesh can at best become a scar, which is nothing other than a constant reminder of the snapping jaws of savagery – perhaps because the many and various masters of war will always hold the leashes of their dogs lightly.
Once courage is shown, the sacrifice made, there can only remain the silence of incomprehensibility, for who can clearly say what wars achieve? There is certainly a just war, and the Secord World War certainly qualifies as one. And yet, there remains the question of the price paid to achieve such justice – and whether those who survive, and the dwarfish generations that come after, no longer give thanks to the giants on whose shoulders they and their world stands:
I was there, where mines exploded, sending howling shrapnel past. I was fighting on the frontlines honestly and to the last.
I’d be glad not to remember but I live with what I saw: crusty skin crawling with lice, blood and corpses in the snow,
the med units where I rotted with their disinfected grace, the open, snarling jaws of the hastily dug graves,
and the minutes before battle… so that you can take my word – I know well how much it cost us, the salute we all just heard.
And it still feels much too early to draw up the final bill, when the world spreads out before us like a wound that will not heal. (Vladimir Bobrov, “Victory,” 1945)
But the price that all war demands of peace is also revenge and settling of scores, just a little bit more bloodshed, before the dogs can be once again firmly leashed awhile, inside the foul warehouse of politics; revenge that casts humans into roles from which they cannot emerge unscathed, or even alive. Here is David Samoilov, about a captive “bandit” women (a “bandit” was one who sided with the Germans in the hope of throwing off the Communist yoke):
I led a bandit out, to shoot her. She didn’t beg, she didn’t plead – Just glared at me with pride and anger, And bit her shawl in agony. And then she said, “Now listen, fella, You’re gonna shoot me anyway. Before you lay me down forever,’ Just let me look at my Ukraine. … Let the potato-eaters [Russians] flee, Their bridles jangling loud, like coins! Let Commies realize their ideals The way they want to back at home…
It’s them that came up with the kolkhoz Where all the bums can eat for free. For us Ukrainians, what’s the difference – Gestapo or NKVD? … I led a bandit out to shoot her. She didn’t beg, she didn’t plead. (“The Bandit Woman,” 1946)
There was a greater tragedy awaiting the Russians who heard these poems, sang these songs, and believed in what they said. The strength these words in meter had provided were not able to sustain them beyond the war. Victory is bittersweet; and Soviet society after 1945 had little use for those who had paid a grim toll with their maimed and disfigured bodies, as they “stirred the ash in [their] hearts,” as Olga Berggolts observes in “I Spent all Day at the Meeting.”
And Anna Barkova provides a monument of another sort, of whatever glory that may be garnered by a generation that once saved Russia from the Nazis:
The roads and the fields were aflood with Russian blood, our bright blood, with our own blood and that of our foes. The tale must be told, but how, no one knows!
We were filthy, grimy, the worst off – but we took Prague, Berlin and Warsaw. … We came back home with no eyes, we came back home with no arms … and a strange foreign pain in our hearts. …
– Spare some change for us, amputees, we’re all war cripples, as you can see, for the sake of your departed parents, take pity on us, conquering heroes! (“Victory Song,” 1945, 1953, Kaluga)
This anthology is filled with much emotion, much insight, much anguish, but also much hope and charity. Maria Bloshteyn has carefully and meticulously built a fitting monument to the Great Patriotic War. It should be widely read. Her translations are smooth, highly crafted and therefore well-fitted to the grand topic that is Russia in the Second World War. Buy it and read right through. You will not be disappointed.
The image shows, “For the Motherland,” a World War Two Poster from 1941.
We are so very pleased and honored to present this interview with Dr. Ciro Paoletti, the renowned military historian. Dr. Paoletti is the author 26 books and several hundred essays and reviews. He serves as General Secretary of the Italian Commission of Military History, and as Director of the Association for Military and Historical Studies. He is a Life-member of the Institute for the History of the Italian Risorgimento, a member of the (US) Society for Military History, a corresponding-member of the Instituto de Geografia e História Militar do Brasil, a member of the Società Dalmata di Storia Patria, and a member of the International Commission of History of Technology. In 2007, he was awarded the SMH Moncado Prize, which he holds along with two other Italian prizes. Dr, Paoletti curretnly works for the Education, University and Research Ministry. He is interviewed by Dr. Zbigniew Janowski, on behalf of the Postil.
Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): You are a military historian, which, if I am not mistaken, is a rare breed. I can only think of three others: Jeremy Black (English), Donald Kagen and Victor Hansen (American), and you. The four of you also happen to be conservatives. Is there any relationship between your discipline and conservatism?
Ciro Paoletti (CP): I know many military historians who belong to the Left. Many of them may have chosen the Left to be successful in terms of their career. Others are believers. I have in mind a historian, who, when asked why he was a Leftist, candidly answered: “Because this allows me to say whatever I want, feel protected, and suffer no persecution.” However, whenever a historian melts politics into his work, the result is bad quality of work. If you want history to support your political ideas, you have to be a liar. If we don’t rely on facts, if we don’t reconstruct facts properly, and if we don’t present facts as they occurred, we do bad work, and the result is therefore quite bad.
ZJ: From what you said, I gather you consider history, not just military history, to be conservative by definition. Am I right?
CP: Military history and conservatism are not necessarily linked. It depends on the time one lives in, and on the political background. As things are, in this historical period, if one in the so-called West relies on facts, he is a conservative; it is a matter of logic. When you know how things happened in the past, and apply their schemes to the current affairs, you may easily realize how close Political Correctness (PC) is to the worst 20th-century dictatorships.
In Italy we had Fascism, as you know. Fascism altered a lot of things, provided its own historical versions and interpretations, but it did not alter – never – the content of books written in the past because they were not in conformity with Fascism. Communism under Stalin modified paintings, exterminated people when they became “enemy of the people.” The Soviets banned and eliminated books from libraries, the Nazi did the same and burnt books, but did they alter their content? No.
ZJ: Is there a connection between the former totalitarian approach to history and the new PC (politically correct) ideology?
CP: PC makes changes to the original version; It does it in some books, it does it in theater. Thus, how can an honest historian join the politically correct, if it’s based on the falsification of sources?
ZJ: Italians are the most historical nation in European history. As my older friend told me, everybody must study art history, except the Italians. They live in a “museum.” Does this “historical” experience translate into greater attachment to history? Here I want to make a distinction between being culturally conservative and politically conservative.
In the US, where I live, when I say that I am conservative, people almost instinctively think I always vote Republican. To me, to be conservative means to be conservative in the cultural realm, which, in my mind, is the only realm that truly matters. Political allegiances come and go, culture lasts. When you start changing the past, you wage war on the whole cultural heritage, going all the way back to our historical beginnings. The former totalitarians may have done it as a matter of expediency; today’s totalitarians condemn history as such, and find little in it to learn from. What is your take on this?
CP: Italians are instinctively traditionalist, and highly nationalistic. They don’t like sudden changes – but there has been a generational dramatic change since 2000. Historical heritage provides an instinctive common background, comprised of Rome, the Renaissance and Garibaldi. But there it stops.
Translated into politics, this means that the majority – with the exception of the young people – is surely conservative, for almost every-time a general election has been called, the higher the number of voters, the better the result for conservatism. But, as things have gone in the last twenty-five years, almost every time the Right won, the ballot result was turned upside down by political crises and rule went to so called “technical governments” which more or less pended to the Left. And these crises, which were called by the Right “palace plots,” allowed the Left to take power again.
Paradoxically, as things are today, the Progressive Left – composed of former Communists – Is tasked to keep things as they are, to keep the power as much as possible, no matter what the compromise and the related cost for Italians, whilst Conservatives are the real progressive forces. Unfortunately, as things went in early 1995, in 2011, and 2019, the majority of Italians think voting is useless, because, no matter how you vote and what the result, later “they do what they want.”
Young people today are the product of diffused technologies and related apps. The vast majority do not read; hence they do not think, and they vote according to how familiar this or that sounds. Thus, political propaganda is basically advertising: the easier the slogan, the easier to get the vote, even if there is an instinctive resistance to “inclusion” and what it implies. People can also rely on national heritage to justify the reaction to “inclusiveness;” but this reaction is not a consequence of the national heritage, which exists by itself.
ZJ: In the 1970s, we used to say – after Hayek – that there is a distinction between European and American Liberalism, because one could not apply the term Conservatism in the European sense to American reality: no monarchy. Accordingly, the European liberal was conservative in the American sense, and the European socialist corresponded to the American liberal, or, supporter of state intervention, state social programs. If you remember, Hayek even wrote a chapter, in his important Constitution of Liberty, “Why I am not Conservative” – and this, despite the fact that many conservatives claimed Hayek to be in their camp. Do you think that this lack of parallel between the terms – conservative, liberal, socialist – in America is still valid? If I may suggest, my impression is that because Liberalism – or what used to be called classical Liberalism – simply disappeared and became PC. As far as the economy is concerned, both conservatives and “liberals” or democrats are for big state, something inconceivable to liberals and conservatives of old.
CP: You are right, but it depends on a tricky misunderstanding that occurred many decades ago in America. The Leftists never attempted to call themselves Socialists, and sneaked in as “progressive Liberals.” But a look at American affairs allows you to realize that the Democratic Party has never supported state interventionism till F.D. Roosevelt – who copied it from Mussolini, who was and remained a socialist all his life – and, also after Roosevelt, the Democrats were never as progressive as they claim to have been. The conservative South traditionally voted for Democrats “because Lincoln was a Republican.” Thus, due to such a core of voters, how could the Democratic Party not be conservative?
Additional example: in Italy we had the Liberal Party. In 1848 it was at the extreme Left and Republican. In 1876 it got into power and was loyal to the king. In 1948, it sat at the right and was considered a conservative party for the next 50 years. The problem is that the name on the box often does not, or does no longer, correspond to what’s inside the box. In 18th-century Britain, being a Liberal simply meant to be a supporter of free commerce, thus to be a capitalist, no matter the cost for low-income and non-mercantile classes.
As things are now, so-called Liberalism claims to be different, but actually it is still what it always was, and again no matter the cost for low-income and non-entrepreneurial classes. All those other narratives about care, inclusion, the environment, peace and love, and so on, are only a nice package to let the worst and most greedy capitalism be accepted by the people.
The same goes for conservatives: conservatives are the real revolutionaries today, because conservatives want people to use their own brain, feeding it with education and culture, in order to think, and then to act according to their own decisions. Unfortunately, thinking means realizing how dangerous debt can be, and how useful saving is. Thus, thinking is not welcome by the current Liberals, because it may affect the market in an unpredictable way. What the market likes are standard-minded people, a society whose consumers are predictable – and thus planned – in order to minimize losses due to stocking costs and unsold items, and to maximize profits.
ZJ: In our private conversations, you often refer to America as Calvinist, meaning in broad historical terms, Protestant, as opposed to Catholic, meaning different attitudes towards private and social realms. Those attitudes today do not express themselves as theological differences, nor a religious vision on how to organize earthy existence, or work-ethics, as Max Weber would have it, but as social attitudes broadly speaking. One of the characteristic features of life in early Protestantism was insistence on certain socially acceptable behavior.
There were no libertines in Protestant countries, who would mock religion. Sin is evil and thus we must eradicate it. Today religion does not have much of a grip on our lives, but PC in America does. Since punishment cannot be postponed till after death, we use the power of the state – rules, regulations, ostracism to thwart social sins. The last three decades in the US saw unprecedented growth of regulations affecting human behavior, and confessions for saying something considered socially “unacceptable.” Our reality looks like Calvin’s Geneva, with sinners prostrating themselves before the public, expiating their sins. Do you see a connection between PC, which has assumed totalitarian posture, and what you see as American Calvinism?
CP: First of all when I say “Calvinist,” I mean exactly Calvinist, not Protestant in general, because Calvinists consider salvation as a gift; and, in order to feel safe, they think they can realize whether salvation has been conceded to them by looking at the success of their actions during their lifetime. The best measure of success is money: thus, the richer one becomes, the surest one is to go to Paradise.
Due to its Puritan heritage, the USA still relies on a Calvinistic background, and this is part of the explanation. Then I’d say that the current mind depends in part on the Deism of the 17th- and 18th-centurries. That is to say: be loyal, pay your debts, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t be a liar, and be friendly to other human beings – and this depends on whom one perceives as human beings, because many deists, including Voltaire, got good returns on the money they happily invested in the slave trade – and this in part depends on a Calvinistic vision of sin and money. I have already mentioned money.
About sin, the problem was that no official absolution could exist, for it was Popish. In early America a person was judged by the community, and, when found guilty, punished. That’s why it is so important on one hand to strip some behaviors of their quality as sins – those related to sex – and on the other hand to still identify some “sinners” to go after. If a behavior is no longer a sin, that behavior is by definition correct and you are no longer a sinner.
Thus, a person who is rejected (but who is otherwise a good member of the community) is one who criticizes your behavior; for this criticism makes that person “ipso facto” wrong; thus, he is a sinner. On the other hand, if you have sinner to go after, it means your society still has a “moral code.” Thus, if it has a moral code, it is still a “good” society; and, when supporting such a code, you are “on the right side” (that is, of the community); and you act well when going after the “sinners” opposing such a code, because they are out of the community, and thus a threat.
Legal means may seem soft, but are becoming far less soft. As far as I know, if German parents prevent their child from learning what is taught about gender at school, they are fined and can be also jailed. But this is only in theory a punishment of the sinner. In fact, it’s just the same system the KGB used in case one missed the Komsomol meeting and, by the way, is just the same system used also by the Church in the Middle Age when one refused the globally accepted behavior.
The problem is that these fake liberties are in fact the surface of a dictatorship which, thanks to Facebook, Watsapp and similar things, is more and more controlling and conditioning every aspect of our life, to plan it as capitalism wants, and not as we want. And capitalism has no interest in punishing our soul after our death, because, first as things are, you can’t trade souls, for now. Second, your death would simply mean one consumer less, thus depriving the market of a client – excluding funeral houses, of course. No, capitalism wants us to behave all in the same predictable and planned way, and that’s it.
ZJ: To move on to a different but related topic: The Protestant Reformation. It is a great modern event, whose consequences we are feeling even now. The second greatest event was the French Revolution of 1789. It proclaimed equality of all. It was the end of the world as we knew it. Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France is a great document of the old frame of mind, which saw the end of a long epoch. It abolished not just the monarchy as a political system but delegitimized the idea of social hierarchy.
For about 150–200 years the world went on without noticing how destructive this is. it is one thing to say, everybody should share political power to a small extent, have the right to vote and influence politics, it is quite another to assert equality in the way it manifests itself today as “discrimination.”
CP: America and Americans are a consequence of their revolution, not of the French one. The latter abolished slavery; the former kept it. Both stated a deistic application of the Christian principle of equality. But in both cases the principle of hierarchy was preserved. I do not see the root of the idea of “discrimination” in the French Revolution. America kept discrimination alive. It did not change significantly till Martin Luther King, who was killed in 1968.
ZJ: Since you referred to slavery, would you agree that there is a difference of attitude in Catholic and Protestant colonialism for this every reason. The Spaniards and Portuguese were Catholics; the Dutch and British were Protestant. The Catholic Spaniards and Portuguese went to the new world without women; the Protestants fled the British Isles taking populations of villages – men and women. They were self-sufficient; they wanted to recreate their life in a New World on old principles minus the British hierarchy. The local population was a nuisance.
CP: The Spaniards started their colonization, wherever it was, as a military operation, thus no woman could go with them. The Portuguese started their colonization establishing trading posts to support their commercial expeditions, thus in this case too there was no room for women, at least at the beginning. The Dutch and the British were looking for free spaces to migrate. They emigrated with families. On the other hand, the French started their North-American colonization smoothly, as a commercial penetration, thus they allied with the Hurons, and converted them to Catholicism. As a result, there was no destruction of the local population in Canada, whilst it occurred in the 13 British colonies (as happened in a similar way in South America ruled by Spaniards and by the Portuguese).
ZJ: Let me move to 20th-century. Here is something that an American military historian, an expert on the Greek historian Thucydides, Donald Kagan, said in an interview for American Heritage: “In my view America represents something relatively new in history of international relations. We are the greatest military power in the world today and we remain the greatest economic power. There haven’t been very many times in the past when there has been a single power with so much relative strength. And we are still almost universally perceived to be what Bismarck called a satisfied power, happy with what we have, self-sufficient, not aiming to seize anything essential to others. We don’t represent the kind of menace that powers approaching our relative strength have in the past. I think there is a new set of rules for us: If America tries to exert leadership in the world, it can do so in many ways that are historically new.”
Kagan said this in 1997. It is hard to believe how much changed: September 11th and all that it entailed, financial crisis in 2008, and, above all, the rise of China, which in 1997 one could not mention as a threat to American hegemony. What, if anything, from what Kagan said still holds true about the position of the US.
CP: Kagan at that time probably presented the shared great American pride after the fall of the Soviet System, when everybody thought America to be unchallengeable. It lasted till September 11th, only a few years later. That America was “not aiming to seize anything essential to others” is something many countries could easily argue about, but my answer to your question is – not that much still holds true.
Rules to hold power are always the same, no matter the historical period and the geographical location. In case you may dispute it, it is about how much velvet to use for the glove dressing your steel hand, but that’s it. Americans still rely on Theodore Roosevelt’s statement: “Speak kindly, and bring a big stick.” The typical American likes very much the self-perception of America as the land of liberty – which in Academia no longer exists and is severely scrutinized by the progressive press and television – and of Americans as welcome everywhere because they bring democracy.
Well, in 1944 and 1945 they were perceived this way, but now? What do they bring? Political correctness? The Americans are not aiming to seize anything essential to others because they are at the top. “If America tries to exert leadership in the world, it can do so in many ways that are historically new?” Oh, please, which new ways? There are no “new ways;” there is, perhaps, only a new way for dressing and describing the old ways. But the core is the same used since the days of the Egyptians to now, passing through thirty or forty or centuries of human civilization everywhere in the world.
ZJ: To bring support to your claim I can invoke two examples. When Hilary Clinton went to India, she uttered her famous slogan, “Women’s rights are human rights.” When Barak Obama visited Ethiopia and Kenya, he was talking about gay rights. My Ethiopian friend was outraged and said: “Ethiopians have serious problems to worry about: poverty, brutality of the government, non-existence of a free press, a corrupt ruling class, rule of law, and Obama is talking about gay rights!” One can, of course, score some points at home by saying such things, but it shows Kenyans and Ethiopians that America offers no support for the people in Ethiopia and Kenya in their fight against corruption to bring necessary reforms in their countries.
When President Carter came to Poland, in 1977, he talked about violation of human rights, his wife met with the Primate of Poland, Cardinal Wyszynski. It gave us hope and created the impression that the US stands for universal values and supports opposition. In contrast to Carter, Clinton and Obama were the supporters of new ideologies.
Would you agree that the more the American mind is preoccupied with ideological thinking, the less effective it can be in shaping politics outside America, and this preoccupation weakens its own influence? What America exports now is ideology which, incidentally, is inimical to freedom. This attitude antagonizes many people in other countries. People in former communist countries in the 1970s and 1980s were looking up to America. Today, no one is looking up to America any more.
CP: I subscribe to everything you said. Americans have often a very poor perception of what happens outside America. if you look at the American press, you know all about the city, enough about the county, not that much about the state, or about the USA, and practically nothing about the world. Americans like to think that what works for them works for everybody and that everybody must be happy with it.
Unfortunately, it is not so. A politician, of course, thinks above all of re-election, and thus speaks in order to keep or enhance the number of voters. This is normal, but what Obama did, and what Hilary did, seems something, in a certain sense, different: they seem to have perceived themselves as the apostles of progressive evangelism, telling the people living in the darkness how to think, behave and act. They had no doubt about being enlightened, thus better. But this is what we are dealing with since the French came to Italy in 1796 – which, believe me, was not a good period; and they were hardly welcomed, given the popular armed resistance they had to face for a very longtime – and it is something we know well. Beware of it.
When you make a comparison between Politically Correct and Communism, you are not right; the real comparison is to Jacobinism, and, of course, since people are all but stupid, the result is just what you say: no one is looking up to America any more, except, in my country, the provincial-minded and not the cultured leftists, who think America to be the land of the best by definition. By the way, until 1994, these cultured leftists were all formally Communist.
ZJ: As you said, Obama and Hilary Clinton perceived themselves as the apostles of the progressive evangelism. This struck me, because I heard the same argument some 25 years ago from conservatively minded Poles: the liberal elites feel disdain for the uneducated, simple people. And, 25 years later, the same argument came to the fore in France, Britain and the US. Trump and Johnson came to power on the wave of popular dissatisfaction with the liberal elites who are suspicious of ordinary people. It is the same thing everywhere in the Western world. The liberal elites, like the Democratic Party in the US, claim to be on the side of “the people,” but any real contact with them terrifies them: dirty, primitive, uneducated and, therefore, stupid. Or, as Hillary Clinton called them – deplorables!
CP: Yes, deplorability. This is the term which tells you who we are dealing with. But this is also why I perceive Political Correctness as Jacobinism, and not as Communism. A Communist will hate you, but will rarely look at you from on high because you don’t share his opinions; and a Communist will never consider you as “nothing:” you are equal, but opposing, thus an enemy to be destroyed – which is easier, faster and safer than re-educating. But the Jacobins felt superior; they had all the arrogance of the authors of the Encyclopedia, the same arrogance Voltaire displayed. They claimed they were right because they were enlightened. Being enlightened – of course, according to their standards, agreeing with those standards – meant ipso facto to be superior. If you think of it, you realize also that Communism was a result of the Jacobinism, not much different from it.
I would add that the worst form of arrogance is the intellectual one. This is an infringement of the first rule of democracy: parity. No matter what the Politically Correct people claim to be, they perceive as unequal everyone who is not like them. Thus they in fact deny fundamental parity to those who are not like-minded. This is undemocratic.
America, China, Russia
ZJ: I would like to ask you about China, but before that I want to ask you about ancient historians, whom, I know you studied, as most military historians do. Whom among the Greeks and Romans did you read? And, how important are they for military history?
CP: They are very important for history in general, and they are the first Europeans who wrote what they knew, and thus our cultural identity is widely indebted to them. What did I read? Thucydides, Herodotus, Polybius and Epaminondas, Caesar, Livy, Tacitus, Sallust, and Suetonius, the last ones both in Latin and in translation. How important are they for history is well-known. In military history, well, just think that the military academies normally include the Greek and the Roman wars in their teaching, because neither strategy nor tactics has changed.
Wouldn’t you say that there is no better recommendation than the fact that non-Western communists read Western classics?
CP: I agree with you, but I’d add something. They, too, wrote incredibly valuable books. So, if they are reading ours, it’s because the first rule of a commander is – know what, and how your potential – or not – enemy thinks. This is what the Chinese are doing; and this is what we are not doing, because I don’t think our decision-makers have read, for instance, Sun Tzu. And it is dangerous.
Then you ask why the Greeks, the Romans? Well, it would be best to ask the Chinese. I can only wonder why. Maybe because our mentality is still that of ancient times, and because Greece and Rome are the roots of our culture. But honestly, I’m not a Chinese political leader; thus, I don’t know. Also, I do not know how much Classical education in the West is dead, because I do not have an idea of how it is in other countries but mine. I know that in my country we still have to study Latin and ancient Greek during the five years of high school – in the classical lyceum – or only Latin, and also five years in the scientific lyceum. Of course, a lot of families don’t like Latin and Greek, and thus look for not so “useless” subjects for their children. Nonetheless, many others still study them; and this is something. As for the last question, it is highly possible that by not reading – not reading in general I mean – the new generation of Westerners is bound to lose to the Asians who are learning from our heritage. Unless we forbid the use Facebook, WhatsApp, and related chats, I don’t know what we could do.
ZJ: Should we – and by WE I have in mind many different “WEs” or us – be afraid of the rise of China for the same reason? In the case of the West, the rise of China as a world power is threatening because we fear that the Chinese mentality, world-view is incompatible with ours, particularly the idea of the relationship between the individual and the collective. We fear that if China becomes a world-power, collectivism will have to override Western individualism. Asian countries, on the other hand, whose cultures are closer to that of China, see the threat more in economic and military terms. African countries, where China’s presence is ubiquitous, see China as a force exploiting their countries’ natural resources. China allies itself with corrupt local authorities. Is there a common denominator in everyone’s fear; or, is the situation in each of the three cases different?
CP: The answer is yes to the first two questions. The problem is that I hardly see a way to react or to avoid it.
Let’s take the case of Poland, at least the case of Poland of ten years ago. I went to Wroclaw that year, because I was going to be appointed to the scientific board of a journal published by the University of Lower Silesia, and I complimented my friend who invited me on how Poland had improved in less than ten years. I remember quite well that during the meeting of the board, when discussing the distribution of the journal, my friend said that 10 euros (yearly subscription) was too much for students. I was surprised, but made no comment. The next day, I asked him: “If a student can’t pay 10 euros per year, how can families purchase what I see in stores?” The answer – you know it but I did not know it at that time – was: “Whatever you see on sale is very inexpensive in Western terms, and it all comes from China. It’s all made in China: pencils, pens, paper, cloths, shoes, all. Otherwise we could not otherwise purchase it.” So, the terms for Poland were: better to buy Chinese goods and get what you need, even if it is not of the best quality, than not have at all.
That’ s the core of the problem: China grew because it was – and it still is – competitive in terms of prices, because of her lower standard of li ving, and because now China is competitive also in terms of quality. As things stand, you can’t stop it, unless we introduce strong protectionism. But what will happen if, for example, China causes a collapse of US bonds? What then? America would crash in a month, or less than a month, or would go to war.
So, you can’t stop it, unless you have no state debt, a lot of raw materials making you potentially self-sufficient; or, you don’t care about your citizens’ standard of living; or, if you don’t care how your citizens react in case their standard of livinggoes plummets. And there is only one country in the world, today, in such a situation: Russia, and it stands together with China – thanks to the US.
ZJ: Is there a way to avoid it?
CP: There is no way. Rather, the question is how to survive. Only in a Japanese way: keep the standard of living relatively low, keep manpower cost relatively low, increase technological innovation in order to render national production more competitive, and reduce national debt.
In all four cases, this is very hard, if not impossible, to do in the West; and in Japan it works only due to their longstanding tradition of low standard of living, hard and prolonged daily work, and, above all, a national debt which, by law, can be held only by Japanese nationals. But we can’t do it, unless a major social U-turn happens, which nobody is ready for. Think of the French under Macron in the last 28 months.
The problem is that the Chinese have a centralized decision-making process, and we have not. In military terms, they have already won, because a centralized command is always far more effective than a non-coordinated one; and in the West, we are not-coordinated.
Hopes? None, or a very small one: the increasing social gap between inner China and coastal China. To be even clearer – coastal China enjoys far better standards of living than inner China. Coastal China is in relatively good condition as far as I know, as good as Poland could be in 1980. Inner China is far below, as far below as the Soviet deep countryside could be in the 1960s, or more. Now, the Chinese government knows this and must somehow fill the gap. A way to fill the gap is to open the inner market, increasing wages in some areas. This will heavily push production – thus incomes should increase.
So there is a slight, very slight possibility that, on one hand, this may push prices as high as needed to render Chinese goods less competitive on world markets; on the other hand, there is a slight possibility that once richer, the Chinese may be a bit less disciplined than they are now, and thus they could somehow start not to obey as blindly as they do now. But I don’t believe either the former or the latter scenarios. Moreover, in Germany and Italy, we have seen how effective the dictatorial control can be, even when improving standards of living; and back then, there was no internet, and no mobile networks. Think of mobile networks and the internet controlled by Hitler and the Gestapo!
We can only hope to be left alone, because, as things are, there is no way to stop them. Besides, with this stupid Political Correctness, I don’t think there is the smallest room to challenge China. America is fighting rearguard action: it’s trying to keep the advantage it still has in terms of technology. But for how long?
ZJ: Given what you’ve said, I have two related questions. Let me begin with the following. Liberal states with their hostility toward power are ill-equipped to fight or oppose the dominance of non-liberal regimes, like China. Any attempt to endow the State with more power is seen as “fascist.” The moment Covid-19 broke out, liberal journalists claimed that the extraordinary measures which some governments took, in Poland, for example, is a smokescreen to amass more power. In the US we heard the same rhetoric. Now, weeks later, when people want to leave homes, go back to work, restart economy, and, like in the US, start rebelling against stay-at-home orders, the same liberal media outlets which complained about the government amassing power want the State to go after those who want to relax the regulations.
This leads me to believe that the liberal idea of a weak state is untenable precisely because when a danger looms, the state must have considerable power to provide order, and it is never because of extraordinary circumstances. Such circumstances, whether they manifest themselves on a daily basis or not, they exist by the very nature of political existence. For example, we don’t fight wars on daily basis, but we maintain the military in case we go to war, and it would be impossible to organize the military overnight if a country were to be invaded. It makes me think that the liberal state can work only when there is no danger (be it Covid-19, or threat to national security), which is a rare or impossible scenario.
CP: The so-called liberals wants a weak state because a weak state cannot fight an organized massive opposition. A state can oppose better than a single person; thus, a state must be weakened; and liberals, as you say, accuse the states, which try to keep some of their natural powers, as being freedom-threatening and fascist. But this in their minds has nothing to do with state-power as such. According to them, the state should be a sort of waiter, providing all the needed commodities, while allowing them to do what they want, when they want, and the way they want. The State, according to them, should be a gadget to be used as they like. So, there is no paradox: they are quite coherent. It’s the idea of the state which is different. Their idea is not ours.
ZJ: What you said in your previous answer sounds like the West’s doomsday or even its death certificate. The 20th-century is often referred to as the “American century.” That century started with a very optimistic statement by President Wilson, known as a “doctrine:” “To make the world free for democracy.” Fascism and Nazism failed. Soviet totalitarianism disintegrated. But now America and the West are being slowly replaced by a very non-democratic China. Do you see in Wilson’s doctrine something naïve; an expression of typical American optimism; or, the unfolding of the Enlightenment idea that Reason, democratic egalitarianism, will win over tribal passions and national interests?
Second, do you think that Americans will learn a permanent lesson after what one can call a defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan; or, for as long as America cherishes its Enlightenment principles, it will commit the same mistake again? Last but not least, would you say that under Trump, America already changed in this respect, not because Trump has any doctrine, but simply because he is a pragmatic businessman who sees the world in terms of dollars, not ideas and ideals, and looks at politics as a tool, not as a science of moral principles.
CP: Wilson was an academic who had no actual experience in foreign affairs, and in politics other than in the USA. His principles were fine on paper, but think of how easy would it be to apply them in Danzig and neighboring area. And in Silesia? And what about Czechoslovakia, where Czechs were only half of the population? Had his been applied, as he stated them, in Poland, you would have the cities kept by Germany and in the neighboring country; in Dalmatia the cities, and only the cities, had to belong to Italy; the countryside would belong to Yugoslavia – it was a mosaic of people changing into a nightmare. It was impossible, because the countryside wanted also the city they relied on; and the city wanted to rule the countryside it relied on.
As for Afghanistan and Iraq, let’s start with the latter. A couple of American friends of mine, deeply liberal, voting Democrats, fully objected to the Iraq war. As she always said: “It’s only for the oil.” Then, from a military point of view, it started badly, because the US Expeditionary force was less than two thirds than what should have been. Thus, it was clear to everybody with a bit of military experience (including me) that from the very beginning they were going to face a lot of troubles once the offensive was achieved. Afghanistan was an additional disaster. Why? After September 11th the US needed to show that they were reacting, the faster the better. They needed a target. They knew where Osama bin Laden was and they attacked. Now, as military history teaches, nobody can seize and keep Afghanistan, nobody. That’s why the Czars never tried. The British left it unoccupied after having suffered many severe total military disasters every time they entered Afghanistan. Ok? And Moscow entered in 1979. You know how that ended.
Will they make the same mistake again? My answer is, Yes. But it does not depend on their military; it will depend on their politicians; and it has nothing or very little to do with the Enlightenment mentality, because in both cases the fight for democracy was only the badge and did not correspond that much to what was in the box.
ZJ: Ever since the collapse of Communism, Russia feels uneasy about what to do and where to go. Whatever Sovietism was, it gave them a sense of being a great power; and, of course, the victory over Nazi Germany strengthened the feeling of being a liberating force. (It did not matter that it was one totalitarian power fighting another totalitarian power). All that went hand in hand with the old idea of Imperial Russia. Then, 1991 came as a psychological blow; the colossus collapsed, but the huge territory remained. As you know, in Putin’s mind, the collapse of the Soviet Union was the 20th-century’s greatest disaster. Today, Russia’s economy is the size of that of Italy.
It leads me to think of a paradox. I gather Italy does not have imperial ambitions; it is not flying military planes, armed with nuclear weapons over Europe, and so on. But Russia does. Does Russia, Russians, or Putin live in an illusory reality? Is their perception of the world, first, based on the divorce between their real power and the illusion of power they have? Or, is historical reality so strong that it makes it almost impossible for the present generation of Russians to reconcile themselves that the world has changed. After all, Britain ruled one third of the world. It lost its Empire, but accommodated well to the new reality.
CP: Russia is a nuclear power; we Italians lost World War II. Thus, we were prevented by a treaty, and we had to renounce military ambitions. But we belong to NATO; and this dictates our behavior. Britain did not exactly accommodate to the new status. Britain was heavily forced by the USA to progressively renounce her world power status – the Suez intervention in 1956 and the Bermuda Treaty about nuclear weapons were the two major steps in Britain’s decline, both enforced by the USA. But Russia is too big to be forced, and has too many assets to be used, in order to survive.
Russia won last World War II, and thus got and still holds a permanent seat with the right of veto in the UN security council, which we Italians have not got. Russia has plenty of raw materials – which we have not, as Britain too practically never had – from uranium to natural gas, including crude oil, gold, iron and so on. Russia is overextended in two continents, bordering with China. And, not the smallest issue, Russian is still a communication language in many countries, as I saw in Prague when, in 1997, I realized a Czech captain was speaking to a Chinese colonel in Russian, and as I still realize when in the Baltic States, in Eastern Europe, or in Israel.
Whilst Britain, once she lost her colonies, remained a peripheral, relatively small island off the European Atlantic coast, Russia must exist as a world power, simply because it shares the border with China. Russia has no alternative. It must remain a world power or disappear; and this is, I think, what Putin has in mind; because I do not think anybody will prefer to let his own country disappear.
ZJ: I would agree with your last point. But on the additional supposition, that Russia’s interests are or could be co-extensive with our interests, I am not sure. However, as things stand today, Russia appears to prefer, or pretends to, a close alliance with China over America, probably to oppose America’s influence for the 1991 humiliation. But given the size of Russia’s economy, her alliance with China makes her look more like “a gas station” for China, whose primary purpose is to secure resources for itself.
You can say, and the argument seems valid, that part of the blame is the attitude of the Democrats in the US. It is mindboggling to see the Democrats running around and screaming at Trump because he wants to have a relationship with Russia. Even Steven Cohen, an American scholar of Russian history, is stunned by the Democrats’ attitude. The Democrats sound as if it was in America’s interest to continue the Cold War. None of this seems to get Russia onside the West’s cultural and political influence to oppose China.
CP: When the USSR collapsed, Russia found itself weak, and isolated. On the other hand, USA did their own best to help all the former Soviet nationalities to get their independence. Hence the USA was perceived still as an enemy destroying Russia; for in Moscow’s mind, Russia and the USSR were basically one and the same. When that process ended, Russia found itself weaker than in the past, hugely indebted, and still alone, sharing an incredibly long and impossible to defend border with an increasingly powerful China. What to do?
After what just happened, Russia could not rely on the USA, and had to find a solution. China in that moment was not a threat and, according to the old rule, “if you can’t fight them, join them,” Moscow signed the Shanghai Pact. The consequence – both partners felt their back was safe. An important Chinese general in 2007 in South Africa clearly and officially said, in an international conference I attended, that China appreciates nothing better than harmony, and harmony leads to happiness; and the Shanghai Pact was aimed to keep harmony, thus rendering everybody happy. As I later wrote in the Italian Navy Journal, this basically meant: “We want to run our own business according to our own mind. So, please, don’t intrude, or you will be against harmony, and the Pact will be turned against you.”
I do not know when, and if, Russia will be compelled in the future to choose whether to break harmony and survive, or submit to Chinese hegemony and become a satellite. But it is certain that, as things are, if the USA does not take a different approach, the relationship between Washington and Moscow will hardly change. I remember well the terror that existed in Eastern Europe in many countries, before the last US presidential election – because everybody considered the election of Hilary Clinton as the trigger for a war on Russia, with their countries in the middle. Nobody forgot that the USA entered both the World Wars led by a Democratic president, who had been re-elected promising to keep peace. It is something some Democrat should keep in mind.
ZJ: Are you saying that European alliance with the US is not necessarily in the interest of Europe and that Russia’s flying her planes over Europe is a benign exercise.
CP: Please don’t rely on the American vision: America, seen from here, did her own best to destroy Russia, and went further than strategically needed. Yugoslavia had to be dissolved, for it could no longer hold as it was. But there was no need to attack it, as was done in the 1990s, thus creating that ghost named Kossovo, and the other ghost called Bosnia, after a bloody civil war, and compelling NATO to keep its forces there for 30 years. But if it was done, it was only to deprive the Russian fleet of a possible port on the Mediterranean. That was the only reason for that war: democracy and self-determination were empty words. Now, try to see who the Serbs perceive as being closer to them – Washington or Moscow. And the answer is, Moscow, and right in the center of the Balkans! Wonderful result!
What do you think that many Poles thought? Do you think that they were supportive of the American initiative in Kiev? Not at all. Poles know quite well that in case of war, they will be alone in facing Russia, because, as the press reports, the Germans have exactly 16 effective aircrafts – 16, no kidding – and far less tanks then the Polish Army has; and in Warsaw nobody seriously thinks the USA is ready “to die for Danzig.” And what did the Americans do? The Orange surge in Kiev; and why? To establish in Kiev a government whose first declared task was not to renew the lease of Sebastopol to the Russian fleet! Could whatever person with a working brain think Putin would just happily accept the loss of such an asset? Could Putin agree to such a change? What do you think the USA would do in case a party in Italy would run saying, Let’s kick out the 6th US fleet from Naples and the Mediterranean?
I have heard with my ears Poles terrified by the perspective of an Orange success in Kiev, for that meant war on Russia, and many others in Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and the three Baltic States were frightened by the possible victory of Hilary Clinton – for that, in their mind, meant WAR, with Poland alone in the first line. Putin is no choir-boy. But the Americans, my goodness, they did their own best to push him in the corner where he is now, to push him to find an agreement with China, and now they complain!
We are losing tens or hundreds of billions of euros to be loyal to the NATO-imposed – thus American imposed – commercial embargo on Russia: does the USA care? Not at all. We, not USA, gets damaged. Obama left Iraq to be devastated because it was a former Russian ally; and then he did the same with Assad; and when Syria – which is flooding us, not America, with her refugees – after years of not ending war – asked for help, and Putin said, Yes, for he could not decently refuse to support a longstanding ally, what did Washington do? It said “Oh-oh, this is unfair.” But when Syrian people were massacred by the war, was that fair? And why did it happen? In the past 30 years, it seems that there was not a single day when Washington did not try to destabilize Russia once and for all – and this is the result.
Russia would like to come to an agreement, but America prevents it. I know that one can’t trust the Russians, but, for Heavens’ sake, when did we, the West, offer them one – I say just one – opportunity to show how reliable or unreliable they can be? Never! That’s a very bad and shortsighted policy. Only the Americans can think that it is only a matter of Russian goodwill. It is a matter of nonexistence of American goodwill. That’s it!
You say, Russian planes fly over Europe, and close the US coasts? And what does the USAF do? It patrols along the Russian border, just above the line of the Russian border? Who started first, guess… the Americans. Putin is reacting, due to many reasons, to show his Chinese allies that “he can,” that he is not the weak member of their dual alliance, to let the USA realize that he will not surrender, and that “he can stand up,” and provide evidence to his people that they are still under threat. Thus, the current situation – bad or good – has to be kept due to the external threat. And the problem is that, as things have been and still seems to be, he is right, because the external threat does exist – from America.
America wants – Russia destroyed, the European Union weak and disbanded, and China falling. As American policy is going, they may have the EU going down, but no success with the others. Thus, if they do not offer Putin a good compromise, a good loyal offer, they won’t achieve whatever result they want. And whilst Trump could, the Dems won’t; and you will see the result.
ZJ: Henry Kissinger’s view was that America in the late 1960s and 1970s was a declining power, and the best thing America could do was to contain the Soviet Union by agreeing to the division of the sphere of influence between the US and Soviet Union. Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Adviser under Carter, devised a different policy: using human rights as a weapon to build opposition in the Soviet empire and hold the communist governments accountable for their violations, and indirectly and slowly weaken communist grip on society.
After the collapse of communism, the sphere of America’s influence spread; but it spread exactly at the time when America entered the phase of its moral decline: its economic model – living on credit which was in perfect agreement with the hedonistic values of the society – led to unprecedented debt, which, as you remarked, makes it even less possible we can build a sensible opposition to China.
So, we moved from the world being split between America and the West and the Soviet Union, to the West and America being ripped apart by unprecedented debt and lack of ideological cohesion which makes it impossible to build an opposition to China. Does America have an attractive message to its allies and other countries, who are afraid of China as well, that could unite them today?
CP: No. It once had one; but now no longer does. Political correctness is not a message; and its rules seem to push people far away from America instead of becoming close to America.
ZJ: Hence my last question. Does China have an attractive message? Before you answer my question, let me read to you something that Xi Jing Ping said in 2014: “The Soviet Union collapsed because nobody was man enough to stand up and resist [its downfall]… Constitutional monarchy, imperial restoration, parliamentarism, a multiparty system and the presidential system – we considered them, tried them, but none worked.” You can contrast it with Churchill’s “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all others.” Was Churchill too optimistic, as was Pericles in his funeral oration during the Peloponnesian war? Are Xi Jing Ping’s words the next superpower’s message to the world?
CP: A mistake usually made in the West and above all in America, is that of thinking of the others as compact. Europe is not compact – think of the differences among the different European peoples – and China too is not, and it is big, enormous, and, till now, the most populated country of the world. Can you imagine what if all the ethnic groups would start acting with the same freedom we have in the West? Divisions, quarrels, differences, and who would settle them? They would soon be back to the War Lords time, or something like it; and that was a very sad time. We cannot, and we must not think that what works for us, here and now, may suit the others in the same time, and in another part of the world, because this is just the mistake Political Correctness does: it’s right, it works here, hence it must be exported everywhere. That’s wrong.
Some years ago I met an American based in London, who had a deep knowledge of the Far East and he had to agree with me when I told him that we can’t export democracy; we can’t enforce other people to accept democracy, because if they want not to have it, there is nothing to do, and we can’t go to war to impose democracy. This is America’s biggest fault – to believe that the American way of life can work everywhere, and thus must be exported and, in some cases, enforced. As long as it was a sort of shared idea, it could be neglected. But for the last 25 years, it is no longer so. It was officially stated by Warren Christopher in an article published in 1995 in Foreign Policy. Christopher wrote that the post-USSR-collapse situation presented the USA with an exceptional opportunity to shape the world according to their standards. His idea was based on four points; and the fourth was the support for democracy and human rights, according to American interests and ideals. Soon thereafter, senator Robert Dole also published an article – “Shaping America’s Global Future.” He said basically the same things Christopher said. Thus one could conclude that, no matter the party ruling the country, that policy had to be the future American policy.
So, back to China, why should the Chinese accept to share American standards, if those standards can’t be safely applied to their country? Primum edere, deinde philosophari – Food first, then philosophy. After that, many other things can follow.
ZJ: Dr. Paoletti, thank you for your time.
The image shows “Fury of Achilles,” by Charles-Antoine Coypel, painted in 1737.
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.”