HistoryBits: Modern Europe
Bits and Pieces of History
Culture/Literature/Marquis de Sade
The writings of the Marquis de Sade have accomplished little to debunk the notion that while the German’s sense of humor resides in the bathroom, the Frenchman’s resides in the boudoir. But they do provide us with a moral story to the effect that one man’s sado-masochistic punishment is another man’s pleasure, and remind us as well that, in spite of so much evidence to the contrary, the natural condition of a human being is joy (not the 60-hour workweek!).
In their efforts to further the agenda of a humane social order, it appears that the French have pushed the envelope to the point of bursting, and the 30-hour work week may now be destined for the scrapheap of social experimentation. In our quest for that Post-Industrial Age grail of the fully-automated Good Life, it appears that by squeezing ever greater productivity from fewer and fewer workers (and by outsourcing what we can no longer competitively produce), we Americans are destined to go the French one better… as we achieve the dubious blessings of the zero-hour work week. 🙂
Those willful and fractious French needed someone like Monsieur Capet to come along and knock heads and hammer what was a quarrelsome pack of petty principalities into the beginnings of a nation—replete with a national currency, tax regimen, and trade network. On the other hand, we need the French to be as obdurate as they are. Why is it only possible, I wonder, to have a love-hate relationship with the French? We admire their culture and cuisine, yet we abominate their allegiance… as they do ours. It seems that after all we went through together with the American Revolution, the World War (parts I and II), Indochina, and the Cold War, we’d find ample ground for common cause. Yet, is it the prickly voice of their protest–or is it the loyalty of our old friends the Brits–that does us the disservice?
Mercantilism as practiced between Britain and its North American colonies seems to have been a natural trading pattern of trade for industrialized countries in their trade with the undeveloped world, using Third World trading partners as sources for raw materials and as markets for manufactured goods. The kind of mercantilism devised by Jean-Baptiste Colbert in relation to France’s European trade partners was more a defensive than a predatory sort, designed to enable France to develop its own distinctive industries and go on to establish itself as one of the world’s most innovative and technologically adept economies, as well as its premier manufacturer of luxury goods (would we expect less from the French?). These days, globalization is changing one essential aspect of that, as multinational corporations establish production alliances with manufacturers in under-developed countries to produce manufactured goods abroad for export to developed countries (cheap labor being the main attraction). In what must be one of the supreme ironies in the annals of empire, the result is that the United States, for one, has become dependent upon foreign manufacturers for a broad range of its manufactured goods. Who is the colony now?
Scandal has a wonderful way of reinvigorating the bloodlust of politics and of undoing the skein of deceit that cocoons the smug hypocrisy of those who purport to lead us. The sectarian strife of France in the years leading up to the Great War seem to have anticipated the toxic animosities between Red and Blue Americans of the present day, as George W. Bush has polarized American society to an extent unseen since the Vietnam War. It’s quite impossible to conceive of any middle ground between the adulation of Mr. Bush as the champion of conservative, faith-based mainstream American values on the one hand, and the assessment of the man as the most prodigious One-Man Wrecking Crew–of the economy, the environment, of civil liberties, of trust, of America’s global image and relations–that Americans have ever installed in the White House. Do the indictments of Tom DeLay and Scooter Libby presage a greater political storm? Perhaps it’s time to revisit Winston Churchill’s words that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Perhaps there is a higher and better form of democracy, wherein the vote is no longer a birthright, but a right available only to those who can demonstrate that they are well informed on the issues, the lessons of history, and their implications. The policies of this nation—and their consequences–are too important to entrust any longer to sectarian politics.
Culture/Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
It took Goethe nearly a lifetime to finish Faust—which, as one of the world’s longest prose poems and one consecrated to the otherworldly theme of the barter of a man’s eternal soul in exchange for earthly success and gratification, could never hope to tap into the sort of audience that the likes of The Sorrows of Young Werther reached. In that sense, Faust seemed to mirror Goethe’s own literary career, which thrived quite nicely on the commercial success of his popular fiction—an interim trade-off, it seems, for the immortality of the work for which his name would live forever.
Culture/Leopold von Ranke
I commend Leopold von Ranke for his efforts in stripping the “science of history” of its religious humbug. But I differ with his assertion that history must be objective and non-judgmental. Are there any absolute truths in history? If anything, it would be that human nature is consistent, and that’s why the lessons of the past apply in the present, and will in the future. I believe that history can and should be interpreted creatively in order to apply its lessons and implications to an understanding of current events—and assessing their outcome–and to events elsewhere throughout history. And if any historian claims to have a monopoly on “absolute truth,” I’d say that person (though not necessarily the rest of us) would be better served by a career in politics.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the end of the Calamitous 20-Century War that began with the assassination of the Archduke of Sarajevo in 1914 and continued (after a 20-year hiatus) through the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam, and the Cold War. But it was thanks to neither Ronald Reagan nor Mikhail Gorbachev that the hated edifice of totalitarianism, and its Wall, crumbled—it was the money. The Soviet Union met with the same fate that caught up with every other empire in history: conquest will always catch up to an empire, and imperial overstretch becomes inevitable. Conquered peoples do not readily accept subjugation and an empire founded on the resentment of its subjects is one that is built on a very shaky foundation. The spoils of empire are never sufficient to offset the expense of safeguarding and administering the empire, unless that empire provides for all its subjects in a way that enables them to become prosperous and self-supporting. Anything less results in an operating deficit that will inevitably prove ruinous, while the attendant dissatisfaction of the empire’s subjects attracts predators who sense weakness and blood… leading to yet more expense in defending the empire, and so on down the rabbit hole.
Radical politics thrive on despair, and the crushing indemnities and other terms that the Allies imposed at Versailles at the end of World War I assured Germany’s misery and despair for generations to come. Versailles also assured the continuation of the Great War under Hitler, the monster who vowed to avenge Germany’s humiliation and reassert its primacy in the world order. As such, Hitler was a legacy of the First World War, and the success of National Socialism was assured not so much by dint of political stratagem or popular mandate, but of the forces of history from a generation before.
Power/Hitler Youth Movement
Hitler and the dubious charms of Nazism could never have held sway without the benefit of a sort of mass psychosis that took root and flourished in the German popular esteem—especially that of its most gullible members: the youth. People (especially those who should have known better, like the Germans) are too often too clever by half, smugly and happily accepting of the lies and distortions that demagogues foist on them… thanks to the reassuring but false sense of security that comes with mass beliefs and consensus opinion. In that sense, we’re quite capable of being altogether childlike–good Boy Scouts and dedicated foot-soldiers in the service of whichever comedian’s calling the tune.
The Nuremberg Laws offer a potent lesson to those who would hate: if allowed to run its course, this is where race hatred and the doctrine of “purification” inevitably lead. Consider the murderous hatred of the Jews by ancient Romans and modern Germans alike; the epidemic of lynchings in the post-Civil War South; the butchery in Rwanda and the genocide in Cambodia; the slaughter of the Muslim minority by the Slavic majority of the Balkans and of the overseas Chinese by host-country Indonesians, Malays, and Filipinos. Here in America, people of all kinds (generally) get along because everyone more or less subscribes to the same American Dream and cultural standard. But nothing sows such terror and savagery in the human breast as the enemy within—the perceived threat of a stand-apart society to the shared values that form culture and the rules by which it safeguards itself.
Power/War/Wars of Empire
Bismarck once observed that there are two things that one should never watch being made: sausage and diplomacy. And Winston Churchill once remarked of the Germans, “the Hun is forever either beneath your boot or at your throat.” The establishment of the German empire was no less a jerry-built and jury-rigged job than Italy and numerous other European nation-states, a misbegotten stepchild of war and diplomatic chicanery and expedience. To say that the establishment of Germany involved three wars–minor squabbles with the Danes, the Austrians, and the French—is to ignore the fractious bickering that preceded modern Germany from the days of the Reformation, and the much greater contests for empire that came with World War I and its continuation, World War II. Looking at it that way, the question of how it all contributed to instability on the Continent becomes obvious, even to the brain-dead. No wonder Winnie regarded Germany as a perennial bugaboo.
Woodrow Wilson’s high-minded pursuit of “open diplomacy” and a compassionate settlement at Versailles did not square with the determination of France, Italy, and Britain to exact vengeance against the Germans. The bill for damages that was handed the Germans totaled some $33 billion—a fair piece of change back in 1921, that exceeded the total of Germany’s GNP for five years, and which naturally the Germans proved unable to pay. Resolved to collect in kind if not in cash, the French occupied the Ruhr and seized its iron and coal, prompting the Germans to strike and shut down production. This struck the spark of what proved to be the modern world’s most notorious inflationary spiral, which ultimately resulted in a currency worth less than the paper it was printed on. All of this Germany ensured that the day would come when a demagogue would arise to transform Germany’s misery into a fervor for its own vengeance. World War II would prove to be the conclusion of unfinished business and unredressed resentments that had festered for twenty years.
Power/Women in Nazi Germany
Hitler and the dubious charms of Nazism could never have held sway without the benefit of a sort of mass psychosis that took root and flourished in the German popular esteem. And as you know, if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. The incentives offered by the Nazis for families to flourish were meant to populate Hitler’s Land Grab, possession being nine-tenths of the law. People (especially those who should have known better, like the Germans) are too often too clever by half, smugly and happily accepting of the lies and distortions that demagogues foist on them… thanks to the reassuring but false sense of security that comes with mass beliefs and consensus opinion. In that sense, we’re quite capable of being altogether childlike–good Boy Scouts and dedicated foot-soldiers in the service of whichever comedian’s calling the tune.
Society/Vampire of Dussledorf
Peter Kurten seems to have taken his cue from Vlad the Impaler, who then seems to have set the mold for and anticipated that of Romania’s modern-day archfiend, Nicolae Ceausescu. The fractious politics of Mittel-Europe have required a constant demonstration of epic cruelty in order to keep what passes for government from disintegrating into hopeless anarchy. The same observation can be made of Saddam Hussein, who fashioned himself after the legendary (and legendarily cruel) Assyrian kings whose heartless oppression must have seemed the only way to keep Mesopotamia’s many fractious minorities from upending the ever-perilous political order.
Saint Patrick’s pioneering efforts in bringing Christianity to Ireland anticipated the monasteries of Charlemagne’s Renaissance, whose Irish monks laboriously copied the ancient manuscripts that ensured the survival of the Greco-Roman intellectual heritage against the gathering tide of darkness, disorder, and violence. Here’s to him!
It some time for Italy to coalesce as a cultural center, much as it took a while for it to come into its own as a nation-state (which didn’t happen until the late 19th century). Latecomers to the groaning board though they were, what a feast the Italians put on with the Renaissance and with the development of the Italian literary vernacular: Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio. The long night of the Dark Ages had accumulated an enormous wealth of pent-up talent and creative energy that quickly compensated for the previous thousand years of torpor. I mention the political parallel because politics and culture are bedmates: against the tempestuous background of the Reformation, the Renaissance offered the sort of wonderfully lawless and chaotic time that artists best thrive in. Complacency dulls the creative edge, while chaos, like Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica, is itself a creative masterpiece that brings out both the worst and the best in man.
Empire was a game that every good European wanted in on, and the Italians (along with the Germans) were latecomers to the table. In its hubris of having achieved nationhood achieved only fifty or so years before, Italy now needed an empire to affirm its rank among the first order of European powers. By this time, however, there weren’t many more colonies left to be spoken for, apart from Africa’s Back of Beyond. After a great deal of rummaging around the bottom of the barrel, Italy came up with… Ethiopia. And as lord and master of an empire like that, who else would do but a buffoon like Mussolini!
The unification of Italy was no more a jerry-built, jury-rigged job than the unification of Germany and a number of other European nation-states, in that it depended upon the complicity of France in conniving against the Austrians and the pope; the geo-political map of Europe had long shifted and swayed in accordance with expedience. Once Cavour had cobbled together the nexus of Italian political and economic power in the Piedmont, and the Austrians and French were gotten out of the way, Garibaldi and his Red Shirts did what was natural, and welded the rest of the Italians–who had long spoken a common language and derived a common heritage from the Roman Empire–together with the Piedmontese center of gravity. Now that there was a nation-state centered around a common political agenda, he spiritual gave way to the secular and the pope was relegated to his enclave in the Vatican—tolerated at best until the modern day.
Fascism under Mussolini was a comic opera compared with the horrors of Nazi Germany. Desiring an empire that would befit his country’s rank among the first order of fascist powers, Mussolini rummaged around in Africa’s Back of Beyond and came up with… Ethiopia! Nothing much came of his empire, but at least he made the trains run on time… which is about the only constructive accomplishment that I can come up with for fascism.
Given the forever-fractious political divides that King Canute had such a talent for healing, it’s no wonder he took it into his that even the tides would heed his command.
With the false sense of power—and the loss of Britain’s support in Denmark’s prickly relationship with Prussia, the acquisition of Schleswig-Holstein would appear to have appear a Trojan Horse that Homer himself would have been done proud by. The record of empire speaks abundantly to the conclusion that land-grabs generally wind up as a net territorial loss in the end!
Relations between Stalin and the West had begun to go bad from the time that the Americans had spurned Stalin’s request to open up a second front against the Nazis in favor of the North Africa campaign, leaving the Russians to dangle in the wind. The conflict worsened over the West’s commitment to self-determination in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union’s desire for the security of its western flank, and we certainly must have sent the wrong signals when Roosevelt and Churchill acquiesced, at Yalta, to Soviet annexation of a large chunk of eastern Poland. Stalin’s preoccupation with ensuring that the Hun remained forever prostrate beneath the Russian boot was perhaps understandable in view of the 20 million lives that Russia lost in its struggle against Nazi Germany; no other nation suffered nearly as much at the hands of Hitler. The creation of a zone of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe—to a certain extent as the spoils of war–was its concomitant.
Immigrants have usually been welcomed to North America as long as they’re needed—whether with the indentured servants (and slaves) of the early Virginia Colony needed to furnish manpower for the tobacco plantations, the Eastern and Southern Europeans for the factories that sprang up in the wake of the Civil War, the Chinese to build the railways and work the gold fields, or the Mexicans and Central Americans to pick our grapes and strawberries. Unfortunately, the welcome mat often wears out once the need disappears, as it did in the United States—giving way to the Exclusion Act, anti-Chinese violence, and more than a century of anti-Asian immigration policy. Much to their credit, many of these wretched souls managed to not only survive the slums, but to rise above their squalor to contribute all that they had brought to the new country (which, apart from the shirts on their backs, wasn’t much more than themselves and their determination for a better life). Immigration defines both Canada and America: North America is the world’s country–it draws the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them.