The Thirty Years War by S.H. Steinberg (1966)

S.H. Steinberg’s history of the Thirty Years War is one of the ‘Foundations of Modern History’ series. It’s admirably short (128 pages including references and index), quite old (published in 1966) and surprisingly opinionated. The preface claims that Steinberg ‘reorientates and reinterprets’ the familiar story.

Steinberg’s ‘reorientation’ makes four central claims:

1. that the phrase Thirty Years War is a misnomer, a ‘figment of collective imagination’ – the phrase doesn’t refer to one ‘thing’, but to a proliferation of separate but interacting conflicts across Europe

2. that the war was only an episode in the far larger and longer-running conflict between the dynastic houses of Bourbon (rulers of France) and Habsburg (rulers of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire) which stretched from 1609 to the end of the Franco-Spanish War in 1659

3. that the German part of this conflict was not a war of religion – as is so often claimed – but the result of constitutional issues within the Empire, namely the efforts of the Holy Roman Emperor to weld his hundreds of little states into a more homogenous unit and at the same time to quell the powers of the ‘Estates’ or local authorities within each one

4. and, lastly, Steinberg very strongly asserts that the war was no more nor less destructive than any other conflict of the same size, and that Germany was not (contrary to received opinion) destroyed or ravaged

Three chapters

Steinberg’s book is divided into three chapters:

Chapter One – Background and Problems

This 23-page section does a very good job indeed of placing the conflict in its full European context. Steinberg takes us on a whistlestop tour of all the European powers, explaining their recent history in the build-up to 1618, and their diplomatic and geopolitical aims and goals.

The nations are Spain, France, the Netherlands, Britain, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Russia, Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and then, of course, the complicated situation of the Habsburg dynasty itself, divided into two branches – one ruling Spain, its colonies and European territories (most notably in Italy and the Netherlands); the other ruling Austria and holding overlordship over the seven big Electors and the hundreds of states within the Holy Roman Empire.

These 23 pages explained where each of these states was coming from, and what they were looking for, and therefore the potential flashpoints between them, much more clearly than Peter H. Wilson’s epic book on the same subject.

Moreover, and crucially, Steinberg has the ability to sum up key issues in a sentence, which is so lacking in Wilson’s account.

For example, Wilson explains the idea of the so-called ‘Spanish Road’ at great length. This is that, because of hostile French or British or Dutch fleets which might intercept them at sea, it was safer for Spain to send its troops to crush the Netherland revolt, first across the Med to north Italy, and then across the Alps and along a land route between France and the Empire. This land route became known as The Spanish Road.

But it is Steinberg who then gives the reader the vital insight that, the importance of keeping this route open dictated Spanish policy for the next fifty years i.e. every time a duchy or province or state through which the Spanish Road passed threatened to become anti-Spanish, the Spanish were compelled to intervene.

Grasping this basic geopolitical concern of Spain’s makes what at first appear to be all kind of random interventions in faraway states suddenly make sense.

Similarly, Steinberg sums up his discussion of the Netherland’s revolt against Spain by saying that, by the time a truce of 1609 was put in place, Spain had effectively lost the northern Netherlands. The conflict would resume and then continue until 1648, but Spain had lost – it just took them thirty years to realise the fact: and so all their policy based round the aim of retaining the territory was a waste of life and treasure.

In good history writing you need an explanation of the detail, for sure – but at some point you need the author to take a breath, step back from the detail and summarise where we are, what has happened, and what it means. Wilson almost never does that in his vast 850-page book, which is the central factor which makes it so very difficult to read.

Some of Steinberg’s opinions (summarised above) may be controversial or debatable – but his book has the immense virtue that he regularly stops and explains what the situation is, why something was important, why it was a turning point, and what was at stake.

Chapter two – The European War 1609-1660

There’s no denying it’s a very complicated story, and once war breaks out and numerous armies led by umpteen counts, margraves, dukes and archdukes start tramping across Germany and seizing countless towns, cities and territories, it becomes as hard to follow as Wilson’s account of the same material.

Which is precisely why what you could call Steinberg’s ‘pit-stops’ are so invaluable – the bits every two or three pages where he stops and explains what’s happened and where we are.

So, for example, he makes the context of the Bohemian Revolt of 1618 much clearer to me than Wilson does, and also much clearer why it never really stood a chance.

He is much more prepared to pass judgement on the key actors, and it is amazing how just a sentence or two of character description clarifies your understanding of whole swathes of the story. Thus he explains why the leaders of the Bohemian rebellion looked around for a prince to lead them, why the various other candidates were rejected and why they finally settled on Elector Frederick V of the Palatinate. So far so dry and factual. But the text comes to life when Steinberg laconically remarks ‘The Bohemians could not have made a more unfortunate choice‘ (p.38), before proceeding to explain why.

Thus he gives the reader has a key insight to build on, an incisive judgement which puts the couple of pages before and after it into perspective.

Wallenstein Steinberg’s account makes much clearer to me why the 1629 Edict of Restitution led to the sacking of the Emperor’s best general, Wallenstein, in the war up to that point.

Basically, the Edict handed over to the Emperor a broad range of powers, especially about religion, that the states and their parliaments, the ‘Estates’, had been trying to prevent him acquiring for decades. Persuading him to sack Wallenstein was a way for them to get revenge and also of removing the Emperor’s most feared ‘enforcer’. A way of weakening the Emperor’s power to actually carry out the Edict which almost all the states resented as an intrusion into their affairs.

Another reason is that, wherever he went, Wallenstein was very efficient at extracting ‘contributions’ to pay for his forces from the local authorities, whether the stateholder was Catholic or Protestant, for or against the Emperor – and this had alienated the rulers wherever he and the Imperial army went. Thus it was that, when the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II convened the Electors to award his son (also named Ferdinand) the title ‘King of Rome’ (a bit like the title of dauphin in France or Prince of Wales in Britain, indicating that the elected person is the chosen heir to the throne) the states made it plain they wouldn’t do so unless Wallenstein was sacked. Reluctantly, Ferdinand II had to give in.

Steinberg also explains much more thoroughly than Wilson the true extent of Wallenstein’s power, that he set up his own foundries and war industries in the territory he was awarded, was a genius of industrial organisation and logistics as well as military strategy. Somehow, in a much smaller space, Steinberg gives the reader a much better sense of the magnificence Wallenstein had risen to and why he was and remains to this day such a controversial figure. I didn’t get any of that from Wilson.

All of this background information makes it all the more dramatic when, deprived of its inspiring leader, the imperial army promptly suffered a string of military defeats and the Emperor was forced to restore Wallenstein as generalissimo of the Imperial army – and Wallenstein was not shy about making enormous demands before he agreed to return, demands which in Steinberg’s opinion, almost made him ‘co-emperor’.

But resentment against Wallenstein carried on growing on all fronts – he was, crucially, not interested in currying favour with courtiers and politicians at the Imperial Court – and so, despite winning more victories, Wallenstein was eventually murdered on the orders of the emperor in 1633.

All of these facts, all of these events, are present in Wilson’s account, but not presented so clearly or dramatically. Wilson doesn’t give any of the kinds of judgments and insights which Steinberg provides. It was only by reading Steinberg that for the first time I could see how Wallenstein’s life story could be made to form the basis of not just one, but a series of tragic plays, as the German playwright Schiller was to do in the 1790s.

Compare and contrast with Wilson’s immense but strangely flat and uninvolving account, in which Wallenstein’s murder is only briefly mentioned and no analysed or summarised at all. Instead, as with the deaths of all the other key players, Wilson just moves on with his flood of facts.

Whereas it is typical of Steinberg that he devotes time to reflecting on the impact of such a momentous event. He describes how the dead general’s lands and riches were divided up among the most senior of his fellow generals who had conspired against him, in a fairly standard, expectable way. But then goes on to make the breath-taking point which opens up the long vistas of historical consequences:

Down to 1918 a large part of the Austrian aristocracy lived on these rewards of their ancestors’ loyalty to the house of Habsburg. (p.66)

Wow. What a thought! What amazing vistas of insight and understanding that opens up. There is nothing comparably thought-provoking anywhere in Wilson’s account.

Ferdinand on the back foot Similarly, when on page 60, Steinberg halts the narrative of events to summarise that ‘The emperor was in a desperate position’ and then goes on to briefly explain why – it sheds light on all the developments leading up to this point, and helps you, the reader, understand much more what the Emperor’s options were and why he did what he did next. Wilson never says that kind of thing.

Death of Gustavus Wilson was particularly bad at handling the deaths of key figures, often throwing away the deaths of key players in a half-sentence or parenthesis. In complete contrast, Steinberg claims that the death of Gustavus Adolphus in battle in November 1632, just two years into the Swedish invasion of Germany, had drastic consequences:

As far as one man can influence the course of history, the death of Gustavus Adolphus marked a turning point in the history of Europe – it removed the main obstacle in the way of the ascendancy of Richelieu’s France. (p.62)

Just this one sentence provides immense food for thought, and helps you appreciate the really big picture, which is (in Steinberg’s view) that this era saw the steady rise of France and its ruling House of Bourbon, at the expense of the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs and that Gustavus Adolphus’s death in battle was a key turning point in that long struggle.

An end date of 1660 Steinberg gives credit to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia for achievements large and small, but doesn’t consider it the end of his story. He ploughs straight on into an account of the Fronde (1648-53), an aristocratic rebellion against the young king of France. Then he describes the machinations between French and Spanish which were eventually resolved at the Peace of the Pyrenees at the very end of 1659.

It is only this – not the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia – which sets the seal on the sequence of events because, in Steinberg’s opinion, it marks a decisive shift in the balance of power towards France:

The Peace of the Pyrenees fulfilled the highest hopes Henry IV had entertained half a century earlier. Spain was reduced to a second-class power, soon to become the pawn in the game of European politics which she had dominated for a century and a half. (p.88)

Steinberg describes the key elements of the two distinct treaties which made up the Peace of Westphalia – a subject treated in depth by Wilson – but also sheds a typically interesting sidelight, a stylish grace note, when he points out that it was the first international treaty not written in Latin — well, the treaties concerning the Emperor were in Latin, he and his Catholic advisers insisted on it — but all the other treaties and related documents were written in French, and French was to become the standard international language of diplomacy down to the Versailles Conference of 1919-20.

It is a fascinating cultural indicator of the eclipse of the late medieval world, the advent of the early modern era, and the Rise of France.

(There’s a fascinating footnote about Cromwell. Steinberg explains that Cromwell tried to do a deal with the Spanish, but demanded two concessions – freedom of religion for Englishmen on Spanish soil, and freedom of trade with the American colonies – both of which the Spanish rejected. And so Cromwell adopted an anti-Spanish policy, seized Jamaica, and gave his support to France. In his small way, Cromwell, also, contributed to the rise of France to European hegemony.)

Chapter Three – The Thirty Years War: Myth and Reality

That title made me smile – it’s very much the kind of book title we had in our school library 40 years ago. You could write a book about more or less any subject in the humanities by simply adding ‘The Man and the Myth’ or ‘Myth and Reality’ after the name of an eminent writer or a famous event, much as all you have to do nowadays is add buzzwords like ‘gender’, ‘race’ and ‘identity’ to an academic book title to get it to sell.

Anyway, Steinberg defends his view that the Thirty Years War was not the unmitigated disaster it is traditionally painted as. He says the experience of two world wars has taught us:

  1. not to believe atrocity stories, which are quickly cooked up by propaganda units on all sides
  2. to learn the meaning of true mass destruction, next to which the TYW is no better and no worse than the wars directly before or after it
  3. that post-war politicians often use the war as an excuse for the failure of postwar policies of economics etc i.e. they have a vested interest in exaggerating a war’s impact, and this is what the rulers of post-war German states did in the 1650s and 60s

Steinberg details how the conflicting sides hired propagandists and learnèd writers (e.g. the jurist Samuel Pufendorf) to put their cases, writers who were paid to distort the war’s causes and course even as it was taking place.

This propaganda often took an anti-Austria approach, notably by the later Prussian ruler Frederick the Great (reigned 1740-86) who wanted to emphasise:

  1. the wickedness of the Austrian Habsburgs
  2. the devastation which they were responsible for
  3. which he (Frederick) so wisely repaired

An endless cycle of ‘reinterpretations’

In the introduction Steinberg confidently claims that the conflict ‘misnamed’ the Thirty Years War was not a religious war between Protestants and Catholics, but derived from constitutional issues within the empire which had been germinating for the previous fifty years. This is his bold new interpretation which ‘reorientates and reinterprets’ the traditional story of the Thirty Years War, as well as his insistence that the war was not nearly as destructive as the ‘traditional’ view holds.

So it is quite amusing that these views – that the war was not a war of religion but a squabble about constitutional powers within the Empire, and was not as destructive as commonly thought – are the radical ‘reinterpretations’ put forward by Peter H. Wilson in his book, fifty years later.

In other words, despite over fifty years of historians attempting to ‘reorientate and reinterpret’ opinion about events, it seems as if some stubbornly resist their efforts. That views about historical events remain firmly entrenched.

So that historians may not be Oedipuses continually overthrowing their fathers, but Oedipuses condemned to overthrow the same father again and again, because each time he is slain, he just pops back up alive again.

To put it more plainly, the evidence of these two books is that historians appear to be condemned to combat ‘myths’ and ‘traditional’ interpretations which, despite all their efforts, never seem to go away. They are driving round and round in circles.

In 1966 Steinberg writes that the phrase ‘The Thirty Years War’ is a misnomer, a ‘figment of collective imagination’, should be done away with, abolished as wildly misleading.

Fifty years later, Peter H. Wilson publishes a vast history of the Thirty Years War with the title The Thirty Years War and delivers a lecture about the Thirty Years War. So much for abolishing this wild misnomer, this ‘figment of collective imagination’.

Conclusion: a historian’s opinion doesn’t change anything. To change the traditional names of events, and the traditional understanding of them, requires more than a couple of lectures and books. It requires huge social and cultural change. Historians reflect broader social trends, and don’t lead them.

Black lives matter

In this respect, it will be interesting to see whether, for example, the recent flurry of interest in the Black Lives Matter movement, with the accompanying burst of interest in the slave trade, makes much difference to academic history, or to the public perception of history.

It would be a fascinating study for a sociologist to assess attitudes across society – from academics through to the woman in the street – before, during and after the BLM protests, to try to establish how historical knowledge and perceptions change, if at all.

The evidence of these two books, written fifty years apart, is that historical knowledge doesn’t really change much — but maybe that’s because they’re both on a subject which most Anglophone readers don’t know or care much about so there’s not really any motivation or need for change.

Maybe on more hot-button topics, like race or women or empire, knowledge and attitudes have changed a lot. I’m not really in a position to judge.

It would be fascinating to read a paper or book on the subject ‘How perceptions of history change’, which identified specific historical eras or topics where the majority opinion has definitely shifted – and then to analyse why the shift has taken place – not looking narrowly at the professional historians and insiders, but at the broader social understanding of key historical events, what has changed (if anything) and why.


Related links

Europe’s Tragedy: A New History of The Thirty Years War by Peter H. Wilson (2010)

Introduction

This is an enormous book (weighing in at 997 pages, including index and notes) which covers an enormous subject, in enormous depth.

The Thirty Years War lasted from 1618 to 1648. It was in fact made up of a series or sequence of wars featuring different antagonists. The central strand linking them is that the staunchly Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II was fighting mainly Protestant opponents, and that he mostly won. The war is usually divided into four phases:

  • The Bohemian Revolt 1618-20, a rising of the Protestant Bohemian ‘Estates’ against Habsburg rule (‘The revolt was not a popular uprising, but an aristocratic coup led by a minority of desperate militant Protestants’, p.269), which was decisively crushed at the Battle of White Mountain on 8 November 1620.
  • The Danish intervention 1625-30, also referred to as the Low Saxon War or Emperor’s War, when Christian IV of Denmark (who was also Duke of Holstein and Schleswig which lay within the Empire) led an army in support of north German protestant states against Imperial forces. After five or so years of fighting, the war was concluded with the Treaty of Lübeck in 1629.
  • The Swedish intervention 1630-35, when King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden led an invasion of north (and mostly Protestant) Germany. He was motivated by a) alarm at the Emperor’s harsh reimposition of Catholicism on the German states under the Treaty of Lübeck b) the goal of gaining economic influence in the German states around the Baltic Sea. Like Christian IV before him, Adolphus was heavily subsidized by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister of Louis XIII of France, who gave him a million livres a year. Gustavus Adolphus died in battle in 1632 but his forces continued the war until the Peace of Prague in 1635 brought peace between most of the Empire’s Protestant states and the Emperor.
  • The French intervention 1635-48, as you can see this is the longest single part of the war. Cardinal Richelieu feared the power of the Habsburg empire on his eastern border and used innumerable policies, treaties with the Danish and Swedes to try and limit and hamper Ferdinand. Finally this broke out into overt war.

This summary nowhere near conveys the complexity of the wider context within which these conflicts took place. When the war broke out, Spain was stuck in a never-ending conflict with its provinces in the Netherlands, what would eventually be called the Eighty Years War (1568-1648) and where its brutal suppression, inquisition, torture and execution of Protestant rebels laid the foundation for the Black Legend of Catholic Spain’s scheming brutality, compounded, in 1588, when the Spanish launched the Great Enterprise, the plan for an amphibious invasion of England to overthrow the Protestant monarch and return to England to being a good Catholic country under Spanish tutelage – what we refer to as the Spanish Armada.

France was a fellow Catholic country and so should have supported both the Emperor and Spain, but in fact politicked against both of them at every turn. For example, the French government supported the Dutch against the Spanish in order to keep the Spanish bogged down, wasting money in the Netherlands, and so presenting less of a threat to French power.

There were other flashpoints such as in Italy where Spain controlled the duchy of Milan. Italy was where the (relatively small-scale) War of the Mantuan Succession (1628–31) broke out and drew in the other European powers in parallel to the 30 Years War. Savoy in north-west Italy, which maintained a precarious independence from the Empire while being eyed by France, was another flashpoint.

In the south-east of Europe, the Holy Roman Empire was threatened by attack from the Ottoman Empire, whose power stretched far into modern-day Hungary (although for long stretches the Turks were distracted by the war they were fighting on their Eastern border against the Persian Empire under Shah Abbas the Great (p.100) who launched a fierce invasion capturing Baghdad in 1623 (p.103.)

North of Hungary there were repeated clashes over the border territory of Transylvania, and this drew in two other powers to the East of the Empire, namely Russia (or the Duchy of Muscovy, as it was commonly referred to), and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, who periodically fought each other.

When Gustavus Adolphus invaded north Germany it was not only to support the struggling Protestant German states, but in order to solidify his power in the Baltic as a whole, specifically projecting his power into Polish territory, who Sweden was, at one stage, directly at war with.

In other words, the Thirty Years War only makes sense – or you can only understand the motives of all the sides – if you appreciate a) the total context of European geopolitics of the time and b) you grasp that all the numerous states of Europe and beyond were continually prepared to use ‘war’ to further their ends.

Accustomed to two disastrous world wars, it is hard for us to reach back to a mindset in which wars were envisioned as relatively limited operations and completely acceptable methods to achieve power-political and territorial ends. To give an example of how it worked, we read time and again of kings or emperors continuing to deploy their armies, while at the same time hosting peace talks and negotiations, each victory or defeat in a local battle, strengthening or weakening their bargaining positions.

Discussions, negotiations, conferences and diets and assemblies, embassies and missions continued between all parties even while armed conflict broke out, was carried on, or suspended during truces.

The role of individual rulers

After the first 500 pages or so I realised I was becoming heartily sick of reading about the endless fighting over the same bits of territory, mainly because the little battles and squabbles come to seem utterly senseless. From the hundreds of separate micro-conflicts which made up the big ‘wars’, what came over most strongly to me was how many of them were driven by personal ambitions.

The entire social structure of the day was build around a fractious, rivalrous and competitive aristocracy who paid nominal homage to their king or emperor but who in reality were endlessly jostling for titles and land and possession. Apparently this was particularly true in France, with senior members of families related to the royal line (‘princes of the blood’) continually conspiring and politicking against each other (p.372).

The Holy Roman Empire was different and vastly more complex because it was made up of four major ‘states’, within which sat 40 or so duchies and princedoms, within which or alongside existed a large number of free cities and autonomous regions – from the very large to the very small, each with their own rulers and constitutions and parliaments or ‘Estates’, as they were called, their traditions and fiefs and privileges and customs and taxation systems, who were joined by a variety of links to the figure of the Emperor.

There were seven Electors, so-named because they were the electorate who chose each new emperor, being the archbishops of the imperial cities Mainz, Cologne and Trier, then the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Duke of Saxony, the Margrave of Brandenburg. There were fifty spiritual and 30 lay fiefs held by lords of princely rank and then some 200 lesser fiefs, and then 400 or so baronial and knightly families. There were 80 ‘free and imperial cities’. States which were large enough earned the right to attend the imperial Reichstag which was more of a consultative body than a parliament, where the emperor was meant to get his way through negotiation and concessions.

Everyone was competing against everyone else. Everyone wanted more land, more power, to expand their territory, seize new towns and ports and cities and bishoprics and titles and forests and land. And warfare offered a quick way of achieving these ambitions, not only for the rulers who owned armies but for their generals. A massive motivation for being a general in the army was that, if you were successful, you were rewarded with titles and land.

At a very high level the wars can be presented as conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, or between France and the Empire, or between Spain and the Dutch. But at the level Wilson describes, the conflict breaks down into scores of micro-conflicts between Electors and local rulers who had their eye on this or that piece of nearby territory, fighting or negotiating to acquire bishoprics or cities or control of fisheries or forests.

And when large states were defeated, the leader of the victorious forces (for example Gustavus Adolphus or Ferdinand, in the middle Swedish part of the war) was able to parcel out and award all the conquered territory to his successful generals and followers. Thus ‘ownership’ of land could pass through multiple hands which, of course, created an ever-expanding set of grievances and wishes for revenge or reconquest etc.

Seen from a really high level the war amounted to a succession of armies tramping across the same old territory, fighting each other to a standstill or dropping like flies from dysentery and plague, while ravaging the land around them, burning villages and towns, consuming all available food and ruining agricultural land and livestock, devastating the very territories their lords and masters were squabbling over like spoilt children. It is estimated that around a third of the Empire’s cultivable land had been abandoned by 1648 (p.802). Grain production didn’t return to 1618 levels until 1670 (p.806).

And this is what amounted to statecraft in early modern Europe. Endless rivalry and conflict, continually spilling over into ruinous wars.

Why is the Thirty Years War important?

Wilson explains why the Thirty Years War was and is important in his (relatively brief) introduction:

About 8 million people died in this huge, prolonged and devastating war. Many regions and cities of Germany didn’t recover for a hundred years.

The war occupies a place in German and Czech history similar to that of the civil wars in Britain, Spain and the United States, or the revolutions in France and Russia. A defining moment of national trauma that shaped how a country regards itself and its place in the world.

For most Germans the war came to symbolise national humiliation, and was blamed for retarding the economic, social and political development of the country, condemning Germany to 200 years of internal division and international impotence, until Bismarck began the process of German unification in the 1850s.

Wilson’s interpretations

Right at the start Wilson explains that his huge history has three big underlying aims which deliberately set it apart from most ‘traditional’ histories of the conflict:

1. Most accounts simplify the extraordinary complexity of the war. Wilson seeks to restore all of its complexity and the complex way it evolved out of, and interacted with, other parallel conflicts in the Europe of the time (notably the Spanish-Dutch war). But above all he wants to show how the central thread running through the war is their common relationship to the imperial constitution. The emperor wanted to secure peace in his Empire, to enforce the imperial constitution.

2. Thus Wilson wants to assert that the war was not a war of religion. It is true that the Emperor was a staunch Catholic and the Bohemian rebels, the king of Denmark and the king of Sweden were Protestants, and Protestant imperial states (notably the Palatinate and Saxony) allied with them. But Wilson wishes to emphasise that the primary causes were not religious but were – in his view – driven by conflicts over the rights and freedoms allowed the states by the imperial constitution, a constitution the Emperor Ferdinand II had sworn to uphold. Contemporaries rarely spke or wrote abour rarely about Protestants or Catholics – they spoke about Saxons or Bavarians or Swedes or Danes or French or Spanish troops. In Wilson’s view, the focus on Protestants and Catholics is a construction of 19th century historians who a) had their own religious culture wars to fight and b) sought to simplify the war’s complexity.

3. It was not inevitable. The Empire had been at peace after the 1555 Treaty of Augsburg, in fact the period from 1555 to 1618 was the longest period of peace Germany experience until after 1945. Meanwhile civil war raged in France and a bitter struggle in the Netherlands. So war was not inevitable and not the result of inevitable religious divisions. It was more the result of fortuitous and contingent events, starting with the decision taken by a small number of Bohemian aristocrats to rebel against imperial rule, which triggered a conflict in which some of the Protestant states (namely Saxony and the Palatinate) decided to take sides, before the king of Denmark made an unpredictable and personal decision to take advantage of the confusion in north Germany to try and expand his territory. And when the Danish venture had clearly failed, by 1629, the king of Sweden then decided to have a go himself, in order to seize north German territory and solidify his power in the Baltic.

None of these three events were inevitable, they were the contingent decisions of small groups of individuals, kings and their advisors, who decided to use warfare for the traditional goals of expanding their territories and power.

The deep historical context of the Thirty Years War

Wilson’s account doesn’t arrive at the outbreak of actual hostilities until page 269, nearly a third of the way into the book.

This is because, to understand a) why the war broke out b) why it spread c) why it became so horribly complicated – you need to have as full a grasp as possible of the history and complex constitution of the Holy Roman Empire, and of all the neighbouring countries which had an interest in what was happening in Central Europe.

This includes (going in clockwork direction) Spain, France, Britain, the Spanish Netherlands, the Dutch, Denmark, Sweden, Russia (Muscovy), Poland (the Commonwealth of Poland), Transylvania, Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Serbia, Croatia, the Republic of Venice and various other Italian states, not least the Papacy, and Savoy.

Wilson gives us the deep history not only of the Holy Roman Empire itself, but of all these other countries, for each of them delving back into the 1500s, often into the 1400s, sometimes as far back as the 1300s, in order to explain the dynastic struggles, arranged marriages, land grabs and redistributions and wars which formed the mind-bogglingly complex web of political and military relations across the Europe by the start of the 17th century. (I think the earliest reference is to 1160, the year when the Hanseatic League was founded, page 176.)

The war was deeply bound up with the complex practices of inheritance, for example the routine appointment, in noble families, of younger sons as prince-bishops or prince-abbots, and the complexities of dynastic marriages between ruling families of different states and principalities.

The Holy Roman Emperors

I found the sequence of Holy Roman Emperors a little hard to follow, though on the face of it there’s a simple enough succession:

  • Rudolph II (1576-1612)
  • Matthias (1612-1619)
  • Ferdinand II (1619-1637)

Looks simple, doesn’t it, but Wilson places this trio and their reigns within the context of the vast Habsburg empire ruled by Charles V (1519-1556). Charles inherited extensive domains, including all of Spain and its new colonies in South America, Austria and territories scattered all across Germany, Hungary and Bohemia, in the Netherlands, and large chunks of Italy (e.g. Sicily and Naples). (Wilson gives an extended description of the growth of Spanish colonies in the New World, their use of slavery, and the importance of the silver trade, pp.116-121.)

It was Charles V who decided he had to divide this unwieldy entity into two massive parts (p.50), the Habsburg Partition of 1558. He gave Spain, the Netherlands and the New World to his son Philip II of Spain, and Austria and the Imperial territories of central Europe to his younger brother, the Emperor Ferdinand I (1556-1564).

Thus the creation of a Spanish branch and an Austrian branch of the Habsburgs or ‘family firm’.

But of course it was more complicated than that because 1. the Austrian emperor had numerous other titles, and these were awarded by a range of bodies within his scattered states, each with its own constitution and procedures. Thus the Austrian ruler was at the same time King of Bohemia, King of Hungary and Croatia. But he needed to be elected King of Germany by the seven electors (see the list, above). In general the next-in-line to the throne was elected while the current one was still alive, and received the honorary title ‘King of the Romans’ (a bit like our Prince of Wales).

Incidentally that title indicates the deeply held belief that the emperor was descended from the rules of ancient Rome and, like the later Roman emperors, carried the responsibility for the defence of all Christendom.

And 2. because the emperor was elected, this meant there were other candidates – although in practice this meant only other Habsburgs, in Ferdinand’s case, his brothers. Nonetheless these might be supported by various nations or special interest groups within the Empire because they thought this or that candidate would give them advantages and payoffs.

So as the Holy Roman Emperor who ruled just before the war broke out – Rudolf II – sank into madness or mania, his eventual successor Matthias had not only to face rival candidacies from his brothers Ernst, Maximilian and Albert, but found himself drawn into a prolonged conflict with Rudolf which lasted so long and was so destructive that it gained a name of its own, the Brothers’ Quarrel. As Wikipedia puts it:

The Brothers’ Quarrel was a conflict between Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor and his brother, Matthias in the early 17th century. Their other brothers – Maximilian III and Albert VII – and their cousins – especially Ferdinand II and Leopold V – were also deeply involved in their dispute. The family feud weakened the Habsburgs’ position and enabled the Estates of their realms to win widespread political and religious concessions.

Supporters and opponents in this intra-Habsburg rivalry came not only from within the Empire, but from the other wing of the Habsburg firm, in Spain, as well as a range of nations bordering the Empire. (So, for example, we find the King of Spain leaning on Matthias to make his older cousin, Ferdinand, his successor [which is what happened] in preference to the more unpredictable cousin, Leopold.)

So, even before he was elected, the Holy Roman Emperor had to have advanced political and diplomatic skills.

Early 17th century issues facing the Holy Roman Emperor

And when he finally did come to power, the Emperor faced a number of ongoing issues, which Wilson describes in detail, including:

  • the religious wars in France from 1562 to 1598, which the emperor had to be careful not to get involved in
  • the immense Eighty Years’ War or Dutch War of Independence (1568–1648), the revolt of the Seventeen Provinces of what are today the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg against Philip II of Spain, the sovereign of the Habsburg Netherlands – which frequently spilled over into north-western territories of the Empire
  • ongoing wars between Denmark and Sweden for primacy in the Baltic
  • the Time of Troubles, a period of anarchy, famine and civil war in Russia, 1598 to 1613
  • war between Poland and Russia
  • and, of course, the largest threat of all – from the Ottoman Empire, ‘the terror of Europe (p.76), whose power stretched into Hungary and which permanently threatened to invade up the Danube into the Austrian heartland itself. This threat has flared up most recently in the Long Turkish War or Thirteen Years’ War, fought over the Principalities of Wallachia, Transylvania and Moldavia from 1593 to 1606.

These were just some of the geopolitical issues which the Emperor inherited, continually having to assess which side, if any, to back in all these wars, and prevent physical or political damage to polities within the Empire. And that was before you get to the issues and conflicts bubbling away in the territories which he directly ruled.

In this high-level map of the European context, note:

  • how far into Europe the Ottoman Empire extended, pressing up through Hungary, and why Wallachia and Transylvania were important border states
  • Spain’s territory in Italy, and the south or Spanish Netherlands
  • the distinction between the Holy Roman Emperor’s inherited Austrian holdings (in pink) and the German states which he ruled over but which had independent princes, Electors, margraves and so on (in orange)

The Thirty Years War in its European context (source: International History blog)

The role of religion in the Thirty Years War

And then there was religion. The disaffected monk Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation in 1517. His reformed version of Christianity spread quickly through some parts of the empire, gaining princely converts who were able to protect the feisty monk and theological rebel.

Despite Catholic attempts to crush it in the 1520s and 30s, by the 1540s the existence of large populations and important leaders who had converted to the new religion quickly became a fact of life within the Empire, which was finally ratified in the Treaty of Augsburg in 1555.

But this new religious conflict was just the latest in a litany of conflicting histories, traditions, cultures and languages, constitutions and processes which differentiated and separated inhabitants of the 1,800 or so states which made up the Empire(!).

What distinguished religion was that religious belief struck home to the real core of a person’s identity and psychology; and that the more devout the believer, the more they considered religion a matter of life and death, not only for themselves but for the world. Wilson has a fascinating passage (pp.261-262) describing the rise of apocalyptic writings and end-of-the-world interpretations of Bible texts which, he thinks, were partly sparked by the economically disruptive change in Europe’s climate which we now refer to as the Mini Ice Age.

That said, Wilson goes out of his way to emphasis that religion wasn’t an inevitable cause of conflict, and describes in detail a number of religious clashes in the late 16th and early 17th centuries where rulers sought and achieved compromise and peace. Thus it’s true that a Protestant Union was set up in 1608 and a Catholic Liga in 1609, but by 1618 the Liga had been dissolved and the Union marginalised (p.239).

Religion – like other cultural differences – only becomes a problem if some people are determined to make it a problem, in either of two obvious ways, 1. as a cynical tool to gain advantage or power 2. because the trouble-makers genuinely believe that theirs is the Only Religion, and that their opponents are infidels, heretics, the Devil’s spawn etc.

Some leaders and some states were determined to use religion as a tool, namely the Protestant ruling class of the Palatinate, a fragmented territory in central and west Germany. For zealots like these the election of the devoutly Catholic Ferdinand II presented a threat.

But the Important Point to grasp is that, although all the successive Emperors were devout Catholics, they also had a good grasp of Realpolitik and so realised that they had to find peaceful accommodations and practice toleration for all their citizens. The emperors tried to hold the ring and contain and limit religious conflicts wherever they arose.

Another flaw with the argument that it was a religious war, is the fact that both ‘sides’ – the Catholic and Protestant ‘sides’ – were deeply divided among themselves, something Wilson explores in great detail (chapter 7), not only among themselves (there was a big gap between Lutherans and Calvinists), but also with their foreign sponsors or backers, e.g. Catholic Spain was at odds with Catholic France who, in 1635 went directly to war with the Catholic Emperor.

Thus Wilson opposes historians who see the war as an ‘inevitable’ result of the religious divide which ran through the Empire. He gives much more importance to the prolonged uncertainty about the Imperial Succession i.e. the Brother’s Quarrel, which pitted the ailing Rudolph against his likely successor Matthias (p.255 ff). In this prolonged struggle both sides conspired to weaken the other which, of course, merely weakened the Habsburg Dynasty as a whole, and handed more power to the Parliaments and Estates and other constitutional bodies which ran the Empire’s numerous constituent states, from big kingdoms like Bohemia and Hungary, through large German states like Saxony and Bavaria, down to the tiniest principalities.

Wilson sees the real cause of the war more in the wish of the states to consolidate the power they had wrested from a weakened Habsburg administration and, if possible, to opportunistically extend it.

Events leading up to the Thirty Years War

Having described this complicated situation in great detail, Wilson then describes a series of events which didn’t cause the war, but help to explain the attitudes and policies of the key players when the war broke out, including such little-known incidents as:

  • The Bocskai Revolt 1604-6
  • The Donauwörth Incident 1606
  • The Jülich-Cleves crisis 1609-10
  • The Uskok War 1615-17

There are others and with each one, I realised a) the complexity of European politics in the 17th century b) that I know nothing about it.

The defenestration of Prague 1618

The elite of upper-class Bohemian nobles (just to explain that Bohemia was for centuries the name of the territory which, in the 20th century, was renamed Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic) felt aggrieved by Imperial decisions and appointments. A small number of conspirators decided to take direct action and one evening stormed the castle in Prague and three a couple of Imperial representatives (and their servant) out the window of their state apartment and into the moat.

However the three men did not die, but limped away, were hidden and made good their escapes. This was a bad omen, for the rising of the Protestant Bohemian nobility which the conspirators were aiming for wasn’t as whole-hearted as they wishes and, although some of the Empire’s Protestant states joined their rebellion (Saxony and the Palatinate) most didn’t, wisely waiting the outcome of events.

Briefly, after two years of battles and skirmishes across Bohemia and beyond, the Bohemian rebellion was crushed at the decisive Battle of the White Mountain in November 1620 and Prague was occupied by Imperial forces.

However, the rebellious Protestant provinces of central Germany still had to be brought to heel and this took three more years. And that process was only just being wound up when King Christian of Denmark decided to invade, so inaugurating the second of the four main phases of the war listed above.

I don’t have anything like the time or space or energy to even summarise what happened next. For a detailed account read the Wikipedia article.

The Edict of Restitution 1629

So the really key turning points are:

  • 1618 start of the Bohemian rebellion
  • 1620 The Battle of the White Mountain, where the initial Bohemian rebellion was crushed
  • 1625 The entrance of Denmark under King Christian IV into the war
  • 1630 the entrance of Sweden under King Gustavus Adolphus

But there’s another one – the passage of the Edict of Restitution in 1629. Having defeated Denmark’s forces, the Emperor Ferdinand II felt in a strong enough position to impose the Edict of Restitution. This attempted to turn back all the changes in ownership of religious land and property which had taken place since the 1555 Peace of Augsburg. In the intervening years there had been a steady flow of archbishopric, churches, monasteries (‘the secularised archbishoprics of Bremen and Magdeburg, 12 bishoprics and over 100 religious houses’) which had been expropriated by Protestant princes and rulers. The Edict attempted to reverse all these changes.

The result in 1629 and 1630 was a great transfer of power and property away from the Protestants to the Catholics. Thousands of Protestants had to leave places they’d lived in for generations and flee to Protestant territory.

The Edict applied especially to north-eastern Germany where the Emperor’s writ had been weak for a century. Ferdinand appointed Imperial administrators to take over the secularised states and cities in a bid to re-establish Imperial authority in areas where his control had become weaker.

Apart from alienating a lot of Protestant opinion, the Edict had two consequences. In 1630 Frederick had to call a meeting of Electors to have his son, also named Ferdinand, elected King of the Romans i.e. emperor in waiting.

However, some of the Protestant Electors stayed away from the meeting in protest at the Edict and others demanded, in exchange for supporting his son, that the Emperor sack his hugely successful but contentious general, Wallenstein. Reluctantly, Ferdinand did so, a victory for the dissident Electors and Protestant faction – and evidence for Wilson’s central thesis, that the war was more tied up with the complexity of the Imperial constitution and Imperial power than with religion per se, i.e. the Emperor could never just do what he wanted, but always had to work through the Reichstag, the Electors, the Estates and so on, in an ever-changing web of complicated negotiations.

Anyway, the second result was that the Edict provided the figleaf the king of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus, needed for undertaking his invasion of north Germany.

The role of Sweden

As a newcomer to this vast and tortuous history, it’s hard to avoid the fairly simple conclusion that most of the war was Sweden’s fault. The Bohemians, the Danes and many of the Protestant states had been fought to a standstill by 1630, and the war could have been ended. Gustavus Adolphus’s invasion of north Germany meant that the war continued for another eighteen years – and, from what I understand, it was these later years which were by far the most destructive.

So the entry-level questions, for me, are: 1. why did Gustavus invade, and 2. – more importantly – why did the Swedes stay on in Germany for sixteen years after Adolphus died in battle in November 1632?

There appear to be three answers to question 1. Because Gustavus saw the chaos in north Germany as a) an opportunity to seize territory there and b) to consolidate Swedish control of the Baltic (against rivals Poland and Russia). And c) he and his chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, presented themselves as ‘Champions of Protestantism’, rescuing the Protestant German states threatened by the Emperor’s Edict of Restitution (cynically or sincerely, who can say?).

So much for question 1. But it seems to me that the biggest question about the whole war is: Why did the Swedes stay on for a further 16 years, causing epic destruction and ruination across vast swathes of central Europe? The war caused devastation across all central Europe, but the Swedish armies alone may have destroyed up to 2,000 castles, 18,000 villages, and 1,500 towns in Germany, one-third of all German towns! They presented themselves as the champions of the Protestant cause, but in the final months before peace, the Swedes attacked and pillaged the area around Protestant Prague. Surely they weren’t ‘saviours’ but great destroyers?

(Wilson confirms my two-part interpretation on page 719, where he explains that, from Ferdinand’s point of view, the war fell into two parts – 1. the initial Bohemian rebellion which triggered revolts among various other Protestant rulers in Germany (namely the Palatinate and Saxony) and which was finally concluded with the Peace of Lübeck and the Restitution Edict); and 2. the Swedish part, by far the longest and most ruinous part.)

Historical events alongside the Thirty Years War

Eighty years war Throughout the duration of the war, Spain was at war with the rebellious northern provinces of the Netherlands, although both sides managed to keep their conflict from the German war going on next door, even if there were localised incursions or aid, specially from the Protestant Dutch to some of the Protestant states.

British civil wars In 1639, rebellion by Presbyterian Scots led to the First Bishops War, which triggered the descent of Britain into what is variously called the British Civil Wars or the Wars of Three Kingdoms (or the Great Rebellion by contemporary Royalists). It is fascinating to learn that irritation at Charles I’s support for the Emperor led Sweden to send arms and some officers to support the Scottish rebellion. (And also to learn that so many Scots served in the Swedish army, sometimes for decades, and had built up a wealth of practical knowledge of modern warfare. Meaning that, when in 1639 they returned to their homeland they were able to help Scotland thrash England in both Bishops’ Wars, 1639 and 1640).

I was also fascinated to read about two rebellions Spain faced, which added to her long-running war with the Dutch and the conflict with France. These were the rebellions of Portugal and Catalonia.

Portugal The Portuguese rebelled in 1640, in what became known as the Portuguese Restoration War and lasted until 1668, eventually bringing an end to the union of the Spanish and Portuguese crown (the Iberian Union) and establishing the House of Braganza as Portugal’s new ruling dynasty, replacing the Spanish Habsburg who had ruled the country since 1581. It was a member of this ruling dynasty, Catherine of Braganza, who Charles II of Britain married in 1662, soon after his restoration, thus acquiring the territory of Tangiers, not much money, and a wife who proved incapable of bearing an heir, thus indirectly triggering the eventual overthrow of the Stuart dynasty.

Catalonia The Reapers’ War Catalan revolt sprang up spontaneously in May 1640, leading King Philip IV sent an army to suppress it, which sacked several Catalan towns before being defeated outside Barcelona. The French seized the opportunity to take the country of Roussillon from the Spanish and sent arms and soldiers to help the Catalans in exchange for which the Catalans half-heartedly accepted the French king Louis XIII as King of Catalonia. The rebellion dragged on until 1659 when it was wound up as part of the wider peace settlement between Spain and France (the Peace of the Pyrenees).

Brazil A small but fascinating sidelight is Wilson’s detailed account of the rivalry between the Dutch and the Portuguese in Brazil. Basically the Dutch in the 1630s confidently seized a lot of Portugal’s colonial holdings, but Portugal fought back, retaking most of the colony, leaving the Dutch to concentrate on their new colonies in the East Indies.

The Peace of Westphalia

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Thirty Year War was its conclusion, and the long peace conference which led up to the Treaty of Westphalia. Wilson makes the – to me – fascinating point that the peace conference invented the model of international negotiation which was consciously copied at all complex European peace negotiations ever since, at Utrecht in 1714, the Congress of Vienna in 1815, at the Versailles Conference in 1918-19 and which underpins the modern system reflected in the United Nations.

Early modern society was utterly drenched in the notion of hierarchy, starting with God at the top and moving down though his Son, to the angels, to the created world which had Christian kings at the top and their aristocrats, sharing top billing with the Pope and the top notables of the church on one wing, before finally reaching the urban bourgeoisie, and so on down to the peasants, squatting at the bottom. Then the animals.

In this hierarchical view, various nations of Europe fiercely competed to be Top Dog, which in their world meant being the Most Christian nation. It was a status claimed by Spain whose monarchs, after Ferdinand and Isabella had expelled the last Arabs in 1492, thus winning the title of Their Most Catholic Majesties – but also claimed by the Holy Roman Emperor who thought of himself as the Protector of all Christendom – while French kings tried to dignify themselves as the Arbiters of Christendom, and so on.

Certainly, there were lots of flunkeys and carriages and servants and grand display at the peace conference venues in the two Westphalian cities of Osnabrück and Münster. And yet, when it came down to negotiating, the various powers (chief among them the Emperor, Spain, France and Sweden, but also the Electors and other key German princes) were forced to acknowledge the interests and concerns of each other as free and independent entities.

In other words, through the long course of the negotiations (which began in 1643, and so lasted some five years) the conflicting parties were forced to abandon the Early Modern theory of Hierarchy, and adopt what we think of as the Modern Theory, that all nation states are free and independent, have absolute rights and interests and must be negotiated with as individuals.

The positive interpretation of Westphalia regards it as the birth of the modern international order based on sovereign states interacting (formally) as equals within a common secularised legal framework, regardless of size, power or internal configuration. (p.754)

The Emperor could no longer intimidate his dependent states with fine words and a big crown, but had to address their anxieties and requirements.

The final deal consisted of two treaties: the Peace of Osnabrück in which the Emperor settled all issues with Sweden and the states within the Empire, and the Peace of Münster, which settled outstanding issues with France, although carefully excluding the duchy of Lorraine which remained occupied by French troops (p.747).

Devastation and disease

The Thirty Years War became a byword for savagery and brutality even while it was going on. Contemporary accounts emphasised the burning and looting, raping and casual murders which infested the territory, and many artists captured this in disturbing visual form, such as the contemporary engravings of Jacques Callot.

Pillaging a house, plate 5 from the engraving series The Miseries and Misfortunes of War by Jacques Callot (1633)

(Other artists who documented the atrocities of war include Valentin Wagner, Rudolf Meyer and Pieter Snayers.)

But as you might expect, Wilson takes a sophisticatedly revisionist attitude to this as to every other aspect of the war. He labels the view that the war was an unmitigated catastrophe the ‘Disastrous War’ school of thinking, pointing out that different regions had widely differing experiences, which also varied over time. He takes a long cold look at the figures, pointing out all kinds of problems with contemporary records and definitions (for example ’cause of death’).

Nonetheless, it is clear that some regions of Germany saw a loss of 50% or more of their populations. There is agreement that some areas didn’t see a return to their 1618 population figures until 1710 or 1720 (p.795).

It used to be said that around a third of the total population of the Empire perished, but more recent figures revise this down. Still, to put it in context, Wilson points out that the Soviet Union is widely seen to have suffered extraordinary levels of death and devastation as a result of the 1942 Nazi invasion – yet fewer than 12% of the population perished. So even a ‘low’ estimate of 15% of the Empire perishing implies spectacular destruction.

But for me the standout insight is the usual one about almost any war, even into modern times:

Disease proved more potent than muskets, swords and cannon. (p.790)

And again:

The pattern of civilian deaths conforms the general picture of military casualties. Disease was the main killer. (p.792)

Human societies are very fragile things, often only just about able to provide food, clean water and sewage facilities for their existing populations. The second you start a war, and start displacing people, you interrupt the growth, harvesting and distribution of food and deprive people of clean water and sewage facilities. Within days populations begin to starve and become prey to waterborne diseases like typhoid and dysentery.

Human efforts are feeble compared to the forces of nature which are poised all around to massacre us as soon as we let our highly organised but fragile defences slip. This felt like a slightly eccentric minority view till the spring of this year. Hopefully now everyone can agree with it.

Anyway, the usual diseases of war (typhoid, dysentery) were compounded by plague, still a common disease and one which ravaged specific areas. Beyond the bounds of the war, large parts of Italy were decimated by plague in the 17th century, but troops of dirty soldiers traipsing all across the Empire brought it too, and some areas of Germany were laid low. As a tiny example, Wilson describes the town of Ingelfingen where 241 people died in 1634, of whom precisely 7 died during its violent capture but 163 died of plague. 20 times as many.

Although, even here, Wilson is cautious and careful, making the good point that a large number of these people might have died anyway, because plague recurred at ten-year periods throughout Europe. How many died of illnesses they would have got anyway, and how many died because the privations of living in a warzone made them susceptible? Contemporary records are not sophisticated to let us calculate.

Summary

I found this a very hard book to read.

Long

Partly because it’s long, very long – very, very long – and very detailed, so it is easy to put down, then pick up again and have completely forgotten where you were and who Maximilian, Frederick or the Elector Georg are, or which precise part of Germany their armies are tramping over and where they’re headed and why.

Writing about war requires special skills

Eventually I came to realise that Wilson doesn’t write about war very well. Max Hastings or Anthony Beevor manage the brilliant trick of giving a full and clear explanation of the high-level reasons for a war and the strategic changes and developments which develop as a result, alongside brutal eye-witness accounts which convey the fury and horror of individual battles. They clearly signpost key moments, key personalities and key decisions so that they stand out amid the endless sequence of events.

Not enough signposting of key events

Reluctantly, I came to the conclusion that Wilson can do neither. On page after page I found myself lost or confused as I read that Georg marched east to take the three main towns of Upper Saxony while Tilly was heading west to join up with the forces of Wallenstein who had recently seized the imperial cities of x, y and z. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of pages made up of prose like this.

The truce allowed Oxenstierna to move Lennart Tortensson and 9,700 men from Prussia. These troops began arriving in Pomerania in late October 1635 along with a morale-boosting delivery of new clothes for Banér’s ragged army. Tortennson’s units surprised Marazzino, prompting Johann Georg to fall back to protect Berlin in December, while Banér retook Werben and relieved Magdeburg in January 1636. The unpaid, hungry Saxons retreated to Halle. (p.578)

Maybe I’m dim, but by the end of that sentence I was thoroughly confused, and there are hundreds and hundreds of pages just like it.

Ferdinand regarded the third army of the Guelphs as already lost. He formally enfeoffed the elector of Cologne with Hildesheim on 22 August, and authorised Hatzfeldt to enforce this in October and compel the Guelph troops to join the imperial army. Piccolomini had already moved his 15,000 men from Luxembourg in September to assist. Duke Georg responded by tightening his mutual defence pact with Hessen-Kassel on 9 November, while Melander broke the Hessian truce to capture Bielenfeld. (p.617)

All these endless troop movements eventually blurred into one, and I lost any sense of why they were important, who their leaders were and where any of these places were. At first I thought it was me, but eventually concluded it is Wilson.

Suddenly out of the blue he’ll mention that all this marching has led up to one of the key battles of the war or marked some decisive turn — but there isn’t nearly enough scene-setting or signposting in the text. He doesn’t prepare us for the Big Events well enough, and then doesn’t bring out their consequences fully enough. I began to drown in the endless tide of detail.

When I did an apprenticeship in journalism, years ago, this was called ‘burying the lead’. If something Big happens you make sure it is flagged up with a headline and a clear statement of the main event at the top of the copy. The headline and the opening sentence grab you and convey the key information.

The most glaring example of Wilson’s failure to think or write dramatically is the following. The Emperor Ferdinand II was the leading figure of the war from his accession in 1619. He is mentioned on every page, it is he who makes key decisions large and small, appoints generals, sets strategy and negotiates with other states and rulers. Ferdinand is the dominating figure of the narrative and the war. And yet his death only casually mentioned in parentheses on page 586.

Archduke Ferdinand was duly elected as King of the Romans on 22 December 1636 (just in time, because his father died a month after the congress closed).

That’s it, that’s all you get on the passing of this gigantic figure, and then the tide of details flows on as if nothing had happened. There is no build-up, no lead-up to this signal event – not even any explanation what Ferdinand died from, no mention of a funeral, no summary of what he had achieved during his reign. It’s a quite astonishing dereliction of the historian’s responsibility to explain.

Same happens with two other massive figures, Cardinal Richelieu of France and the French King Louis XIII, whose deaths in 1642 are briefly mentioned in the same sentence before the text moves briskly on with no mention anywhere of their importance, what their goals were and whether they achieved them, their responsibility in the war. Nothing.

It is a staggeringly cavalier attitude, and a prime example of the way Wilson is not writing history in a way designed to engage you with individuals and personalities, to make the story exciting or gripping, but with other aims in mind.

Wilson’s revisionist intentions Part of the reason for this lack of good storytelling is that Wilson is more of an academic writer than Hastings or Beevor. You feel he is not setting down the welter of details in order to tell a good story, but because Wilson wants to make academic points. You begin to realise his primary motivation is overturning ‘traditional interpretations and asserting his revisionist account.

And you begin to recognise the moments when he does this as they all follow a similar template or formula – he writes that so-and-so event is usually interpreted as meaning x, but that he is going to reinterprets it as meaning y.

The general conclusion is that Wallenstein represented the last of the condottiere, or great mercenary captains who emerged in the Italian Renaissance. Such figures are thought to represent a transition in historical development as expedients employed by states until governments were capable of organising armies themselves. This is misleading. (p.542)

Or:

The war is customarily portrayed as entering its most destructive and meaningless phase after 1640, as it allegedly descended into ‘universal, anarchic and self-perpetuating violence.’ The development is often attributed to the deaths of the ‘great captains’ like Gustavus, Wallenstein and Bernhard, and is associated with the supposed internationalisation of the war… Much of this is a myth. (p.622)

In other words, for Wilson the text doesn’t exist as a dramatic story studded with key moments which represent massive historical and cultural turning points (like the Czech defeat at the Battle of the White Mountain or the death in battle of Gustavus Adolphus or the murder of the legendary Imperial general Wallenstein). These highly dramatic moments are almost peripheral to his real concern which is to take on the received ideas and interpretations of previous historians and to give key moments his own interpretation.

Thus in chapter 21, towards the end of the book, Wilson goes to great lengths to proves that, far from leaving the Empire a ‘hollow shell’, as many, especially 19th century critics of the treaty claimed, it in fact rejuvenated the Empire,

injected new life into its constitution and strengthened its political culture. (p.778)

But there’s another problem with this approach, beyond making the book lack narrative drive and consistently failing to signpost key moments so that the book ends up feeling like one damned thing after another for 850 pages of dense and detailed text.

This problem is that, to really get the most out of his new takes on old issues – to really understand how Wilson is upending traditional interpretations and giving new readings and slants on well-known events, people or policies – you have to know what the traditional interpretations are.

You have to have a good grasp on how historians have traditionally interpreted, say, Wallenstein’s character or Gustavus Adolphus’s motives, in order to really appreciate how Wilson is giving them a new interpretation, but the feeling that this would help your understanding of what Wilson is trying to do adds to the levels of complexity and slight anxiety I experienced reading his book.

This is, quite simply, asking too much of the average reader – that they should have a detailed enough knowledge of the traditional picture of the Thirty Years War in order to appreciate Wilson’s innovations and new readings.

Wilson’s interest in the finances of the war Just a mention that Wilson’s book is very, very thorough about the financial aspects of the war. He devotes a great deal of space to the ongoing financial tribulations of the Emperor, and the kings of Spain, France, Denmark and Sweden. He explains how they all had to borrow to finance the war, and then were reduced to various extreme expedients, raising taxes, extorting money from conquered territories, looting gold and silver, squeezing Jewish financiers, a whole range of desperate measures, to pay the money back, and often never did.

Towards the end of the book he has a fascinating passage about the so-called ‘Kipper and Wipper’ hyperinflation which afflicted the Empire as states debased their currencies to pay for the exorbitant costs of war, which itself mostly meant paying the wages of the huge numbers of mercenary troops employed by both sides (pp.795-798).

Included in this theme is the fascinating fact, which I knew from other sources but still blows my mind, that although Spain was extracting huge amounts of silver from its mines in the New World (working to death slave labour populations of local Indians and then importing African slaves to carry out the work) it still managed to go bankrupt repeatedly throughout the later 16th and most of the 17th century. Basically, the Spanish Empire wasted all that treasure and more, on its stupid, futile wars, chief of which was trying to suppress the Protestant Dutch for 80 years. An epic example of historic futility.

Back with Wilson’s focus on finances, his summary of the Westphalia settlement includes a detailed consideration of the demobilisation of the troops of all sides stationed in garrisons, castles and cities all over the empire, and the cost of demobilisation. Peace treaties of the time usually included a so-called ‘satisfaction’ money i.e. money given by the loser to the victor to pay off his armies. Earlier in the book, Wilson explained the fascinating fact that it was often difficult to end local conflicts and even entire wars, because armies refused to be demobilised until they were paid.

This book contains an astonishing amount of information and shows an encyclopedic knowledge of the myriad of issues and subjects involved in the history of the period.

Lack of maps Finally, it is a scandal that an 850-page-long book about the most complicated conflict in European history has precisely one map. And quite early on I realised that many places mentioned in the text aren’t even on it. This made it difficult-to-impossible to understand page after page after page of the text which describes this army marching from x to y via the river z, and meeting up with the army of p near the town of m not far from the lake of c — if none of these places are indicated on the book’s one and only map.

Of course, you can try googling all these placenames and, sure enough, find the places on Google Maps (although sometimes the names have changed and it takes a while of checking and double checking to be sure you’ve got the right one). But of course Google Maps doesn’t show the way the territory looked in the 17th century, nor does it show you the route of the complicated army manoeuvres you’ve just read about, or where the armies camped or set up and fought, or anything that you really need to see in order to understand the text.

The complete impossibility of establishing where half the things Wilson was describing were taking place was another big reason why the text eventually became a blur of similar-sounding names and places which became impossible to keep track of.

Conclusion

This book is an awe-inspiring achievement. To have reviewed so much material, to have consulted so many sources, in so many languages, in so many libraries, and to have mastered the early modern history of almost all European countries, and not least the terrifying complexity of the Holy Roman Empire and the complex web of power structures whose failure helped to trigger the war – and then to set it all down into an enormous, lucid, calm, reasonable, well-judged and balanced account like this is an awesome, almost a supernatural achievement.

Nonetheless, my conclusion would be that you should only consider reading this book if you want a really, really, really detailed account of the minutiae of the Thirty Years War, complete with academic reassessments of received historical opinions, and stripped of almost all excitement, drama and interest.

For most normal people, reading the Wikipedia article about the war (and all the related conflicts and key figures) will be more than they’ll ever need to know.

Video

Here’s a video of Peter H. Wilson himself delivering a lecture about the war. The main thing that comes over in this lecture which isn’t obvious from his book, is his simple explanation of why the war lasted so long – which is that both the Dutch and the French wanted to prevent it ending – for if it ended, the Austrian Habsburgs would be in a position to fully support their Spanish cousins to finally defeat the Dutch rebels.

Obviously the Dutch didn’t want this to happen, but neither did the French who were worried about being surrounded by Habsburgs to the south, east and north – and so first the Dutch and then, increasingly, the French, subsidised first the Danish intervention, and then the longer-lasting Swedish invasion of the empire, and then finally, the French themselves became directly involved in the war in 1635.


Appendix: Where does the word ‘Protestant’ come from?

A ‘diet’ or imperial conference was convened at the city of Speyer, in Germany in 1529. Its aims were:

  1. organising the German states to deal with renewed Ottoman Turkish attacks in Hungary
  2. to settle the religious question

The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, himself a devout Catholic, was prepared to take a conciliatory approach to the Empire’s princes and dukes who had converted to the new ‘reformed’ religion of Martin Luther. But the diet was managed by his brother Ferdinand who took a harsher, non-negotiable line. He condemned all those princes who had interpreted a previous diet held at Speyer just three years earlier as allowing them to choose what religion was practiced in their states. No, they couldn’t, Ferdinand said. On the contrary, Ferdinand ordered that all states within the Empire must follow Catholicism, that all church reforms must be scrapped, and that any further reform was punishable by death. The Lutherans’ lives were to be spared, but more radical reformers like Zwinglians and Anabaptists were simply to be executed out of hand. Ferdinand and the Catholic rulers present – the majority – voted for these proposals.

The Lutheran members of the Diet (namely the rulers of Saxony, Brandenburg, Braunschweig-Luneburg, Hesse, Anhalt and the representatives of fourteen imperial cities) entered a formal protest against the decision and appealed to the Emperor Charles V (who had not attended the diet) to reverse its dictates.

Their protest against the harsh results of the second Diet of Speyer led to them becoming known as the protestors or the Protestants and the name became attached to all followers of reformed religion, whatever their precise thrology or practice.

To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw (2015)

This is volume seven in the eight-volume Penguin History of Europe and it is very good. It has to cover a lot of ground and Kershaw does it clearly and authoritatively. He does this more by focusing on broad themes and issues, than getting snarled up in details. It is a high-level overview.

Contents

The period

In Kershaw’s opinion the 20th century is characterised by wars, immense wars, and falls naturally into two halves – the period of the two world wars 1914 to 1945, and then the Cold War, 1945 to 1990.

The Cold War will be dealt with in the ninth and final volume of the series. This volume covers the earlier period but Kershaw makes the point that, as the violence and chaos of the Second War continued after its official end, and that it took a few years for its repercussions – and the shape of the post-war world – to fully emerge, so his account ends not on VE or VJ Day 1945, but goes on till 1949, the year the Berlin Airlift ended (12 May) and the Federal Republic of Germany was created (20 September).

The themes

In Kershaw’s view the 20th century to 1949 was characterised by four large themes or issues:

1. An explosion of ethno-racist nationalism

The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian Empires both ‘liberated’ a lot of peoples who now set up independent nations (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Turkey) – but also confirmed the trend whereby these new nations defined themselves ethnically.

In the big rambling empires all sorts of religious and ethnic groups may have resented each other, but managed to live alongside each other, in part because they were all subjects of the emperor or sultan. Ethnic nationalism destroyed this tolerance. At a stroke, if you didn’t speak the national language of the national people who the new nation was set up for, you were an outsider and, by implication and sometimes even by law, a second-class citizen. The Jews were outcast everywhere.

2. Bitter and irreconcilable demands for territorial revisionism

Before he brought America into the war, Woodrow Wilson had declared certain principles, namely that America would be fighting for 1. a peace without conquest (i.e. in the final peace deals, conquerors wouldn’t get to keep the land they’d acquired) and that 2. oppressed peoples would be liberated and given their independence / own nations.

In practice this second one proved tricky because centuries of living under rambling empires had resulted in a tremendous mixing-up of populations. To give an example, a large area in the east of Anatolia was known as Armenia and was the traditional homeland of the Armenian people – but there were large Armenian populations scattered over the rest of the Ottoman Empire, not least in the area known as Cilicia, at the other end of Anatolia from Armenia proper: so what happens to them?

The victors in the war laboured long and hard over complicated treaties (Versailles, Trianon, Saint Germain), drawing lines on maps and creating new nations states. But it proved impossible not to include in almost all of them large ethnic minorities a) who resented not living in their nation b) who were resented by the majority population for not speaking the national language, having the correct type of name or religion.

And impossible not to do this without creating a burning sense of grievance on the part of the nations who lost territory: Germany lost 13% of its pre-war territory and 10% of its population (p.119); Russia lost control of the Baltic states and Finland; Bulgaria also lost some territory, but Hungary lost a whopping 75% of its former pre-WW1 territories so that some three and a half Hungarians found themselves living outside Hungary, many of them in the new enlarged Romania which became nearly twice the size of its 1914 embodiment.

Kershaw gives the chapter where he describes all this the title ‘The Carve-Up’.

3. A prolonged crisis of capitalism, which many thought was terminal, and needed to be replaced by new social structures

The First World War left economic wreckage at every level, from devastated agricultural land through ruined industrial sectors. This was a lot more true in the East where entire regions such as Ukraine, Belarus and Galicia were devastated, than in the relatively static West, where only a relatively small zone about 50 kilometers wide had been devastated by the trench warfare.

At a higher level, all the combatants had had to borrow vast sums to fund their war efforts, and this left many on the brink of bankruptcy. The Western nations had borrowed heavily from the USA. To repay its debt France insisted on huge reparations from Germany. When Germany defaulted on the payments in 1923, France occupied the industrial Ruhr area of Germany, the German government told the workers to go on strike in protest, and the fragile German economy collapsed leading to the famous hyperinflation where you needed a wheelbarrow full of cash to buy a cigarette.

This situation was sorted out at an international conference which enacted the Dawes Plan, a simple triangle whereby America lent money to Germany to rebuild her economy, the German government used the tax revenue generated from its growing economy to pay reparations to France, and France used the German reparations to pay back its immense war loans from America and pledged to buy American products.

This elegant plan underpinned the brittle prosperity of the later 1924-29, the Jazz Era, the Roaring Twenties, the Weimar Years. But, as we all know, it collapsed with the 1929 Wall Street Crash which not only led to prolonged Depression in the States, but collapsed the Dawes Plan and plunged Europe into depression, triggering the mounting unemployment and renewed inflation which set the scene for the rise of the Nazis.

Throughout the period, many thinkers and commentators thought the capitalist system was doomed. It seemed to be failing before their eyes, in America, Britain, France and Germany. Many thought Western civilisation could only survive by mutating into new forms, by evolving new social structures.

4. Acute class conflict, given new impetus by the advent of Bolshevik Russia

There had been class-based uprisings and revolutions throughout the 19th century (maybe the brutal Paris Commune is the most extreme and clearly class-based example) and a wealth of thinkers, not only Marx, had analysed the grotesque inequality between the new factory and business owners and the deeply impoverished industrial proletariat as a clash of classes.

But the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia transformed the situation. The Bolshevik regime became a symbol and lightning rod for class antagonisms all round the world. It appeared to offer a real working example of a genuinely alternative social system, one in which the government sequestered all the means of production and distribution and ran them for the good of the entire people, not just a wealthy few.

But it had two baleful consequences:

1. The Russian Revolution split the Left From the establishment of the Communist International (or Comintern) in 1919 until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the forces of the Left in every country in the world would be divided between communist parties taking direct orders from Moscow, and all the other forces of the Left who, quite often, the communists undermined & sabotaged (see the Spanish Civil War). This was a fatal division of the forces opposing the Right and Fascism, which Kershaw describes occurring in country after country across the period.

2. The Russian Revolution was a galvanising force in the rise of the Right Right-wing parties everywhere reached out to the newly-enfranchised masses (all European nations expanded their voting based after the war, for the first time creating really mass democracies), especially the large numbers of middle and lower-middle-class voters, and terrified them with visions of blood-thirsty revolutionaries taking over their town or country, lining all ‘class enemies’ (i.e. them) up against the wall, confiscating their businesses and hard-won savings.

One way of looking at it was that, without the very real existence of the Bolshevik regime, and the threat from growing communist parties in every country in Europe, there would have been no rise of Fascism.

And the closer you were to Bolshevik Russia, the more pressing the conflict seemed – from Poland which was actually invaded by the Red Army in 1920, to countries like Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary where initial dalliances with left-wing governments quickly gave way to right-wing authoritarian governments (the Iron Guard in Romania, the royal authoritarian dictatorship of Tsar Boris III in Bulgaria, the right-wing administration of admiral Miklós Horthy in Hungary).

All exemplified, over a longer timeframe, by the central and most important European state, Germany, whose Weimar regime tried to follow Western norms of governance, but was undermined by the extreme social divisions sparked by recurrent economic crises, by the immense and widespread resentment created by the punitive Versailles Treaty, and by a culture of subversion and street violence which the Right, eventually, was to win.

Conclusion All four elements (nationalism, economic crises, left-wing politics, squabbling over territory) had of course pre-existed all across Europe. But they were driven to new heights of intensity by the First World War and the widespread chaos which followed. And then combined like toxic chemicals, catalysed by the series of political and economic crises, to create unprecedented levels of bitterness, hatred, anger and social division all across Europe between the wars.


The origins of the First World War

There are as many opinions about the origins of the First World War as there are grains of sand on a beach. Kershaw emphasises the folly of the German government sending Austro-Hungary, as it pondered how to punish Serbia for the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, a ‘blank check’, promising to support them come-what-may. This encouraged the Dual Monarchy to outface the Russians, which of course prompted the Russkies to mobilise etc etc.

But reading his account what came over to me as the really decisive source of the crisis was the Austro-Hungarian slowness to act. Other heads of state had been assassinated in the decade leading up to 1914 without sparking a general crisis. The other powers expected Austria to attack Serbia and deliver a short sharp reprimand, maybe occupy Belgrade, demand some reparations before withdrawing.

But, as Kershaw says, the Austro-Hungarian Empire only had two speeds, very slow or stop, and it took them nearly four weeks to write and send their ultimatum to the Serbian government.

This appalling delay gave all the other European governments time to consider how they could use the crisis for their own ends, not least Germany, whose military leaders told the Kaiser this was a golden opportunity to thrash the Russians before the Russians completed their well-known plan to modernise and expand their army, which was due to be completed by 1917. The German High Command persuaded the Kaiser that it was now or never.

If Austro-Hungary had gone in hard and fast with a surprise attack into Serbia within days of the assassination, a conference would have been called among the powers – much as happened after the first and second Moroccan crises (1905 and 1911) or the two Balkan wars (1912 and 1913) – to sort the problem out, probably force Serbia to pay reparations, and defuse tensions among the powers.

So you could argue that it was the byzantine and elephantine bureaucracy of the unwieldy Austro-Hungarian state which caused the cataclysmic conflict which defined the entire 20th century.

This view gives edge to your reading of a novel like Robert Musil’s A Man Without Qualities with its sustained satire on the pompous ineffectiveness of the Austrian administration. Maybe not so funny after all…


Civilised Western and backward Eastern Europe

There’s a whole genre of books devoted to explaining ‘the Rise of the West’ i.e. how Western empires ended up by the early twentieth century ruling a lot of the rest of the world. Harder to find are books which investigate the simpler question: Why was Western Europe relatively ‘civilised’ whereas regimes got steadily more repressive, undemocratic and authoritarian the further East across Europe you travelled. Kershaw’s book suggests some answers.

1. Western Europe was more ethnically homogeneous than central or Eastern Europe. England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden – these were populated by homogeneous populations of people identifying with the nation, with only tiny, insignificant minorities (actually Belgium is the exception which prove this rule, with low-lying conflict between the Flemings and the Walloons). Therefore one of the key prompts of post-war social tension – ethnically jumbled populations with conflicting claims – simply didn’t exist.

A notable exception was Spain where two large ethnically distinct groups, the Catalans and the Basques, combined with a backward, poverty-stricken population to make ruling the country problematic, as its slide towards civil war was to highlight.

2. Nation states in the West were long established. The French could trace their nation back to Charlemagne and the British to Alfred the Great, certainly to Magna Carta in 1216. Both nations had parliaments by the 1200s. That gave them 700 years experience of evolving laws and customs and strategies to manage social conflict. Compare and contrast with Germany, which was only unified in 1871 and whose experiments with self-governance over the next 70 years were not, shall we say, particularly successful. It was only after the British and Americans taught them how to run a modern democracy in the post-war occupation that they finally got it. Or compare with any of the ‘successor’ states to the collapsed empires – Hungary, Yugoslavia, Poland, which had barely any experience managing themselves. Spain, though it had existed as a political entity since the Unification of the 1490s, had only just ceased to be a monarchy. Only in 1931 did they expel their king and declare themselves a republic.

So all these nations or administrations had very shallow roots and little experience of self-government.

To put the same thing another way, Kershaw explains that in Western European countries (and the USA) the state had, over time shaped the nation, the institutions of the state had created a national consciousness which identified with them, the institutions. The institutions of state had become part of the populations sense of nationhood e.g. in Britain, the Queen, the Houses of Parliament, Black Rod, the Leader of the Opposition and so on.

It was the opposite in the new nations central and eastern Europe. Here ethnically purist nationalisms predated any idea of what a nation was, and the new states were created in the name of ethnically limited nations: Poland for the Poles, Hungary for the Hungarians and so on. The precise political form the new states took was secondary; the aim was to promote the nation.

Thus the institutions of the new democratic states were mostly new and, as they proved themselves incapable of managing the political and economic crises of the 1930s, broad sections of the population had no qualms about overthrowing these institutions and replacing them with different ones. They didn’t have the national identification with Queen and Parliament or President and Congress that the British and Americans have. So they got rid of them and tried something new, almost always rule by the army or authoritarian figures.

Thus in the USA or Britain, most people thought of politics as a simple choice between Labour or Tory, or Republican or Democrat. Most people accepted ‘democracy’ and few people thought about overthrowing it. But the democratic state was such a new invention in the ten new countries of post-war Europe that plenty of politicians, intellectuals and activists could easily imagine overthrowing and replacing it with a different model, more appropriate to the times, and almost always more authoritarian.

3. The further East you went, the less industrialised i.e. the more ‘backward’ countries became. It appears to have been a simple gradient, a line you could draw on a graph. In Britain at the end of the First World War only 10% of the working population worked on the land whereas 72% of the Romanians worked on the land. Rural workers tended to be illiterate and easy to sway towards simplistic, nationalistic regimes in a way the highly educated population of, say, Britain, would have found laughable. Thus Oswald Mosley’s high-profile British Union of Fascists caused well-publicised public disorders, but never had more than 50,000 members, far fewer than the National Trust or the Women’s Institute.

Of course the most easterly European nation was Russia, which – following the West-East rule:

  • had the highest proportion – 80% – of illiterate peasants
  • no tradition of elective democracy – the Tsar only set up a sort of parliament, the Duma, in 1905, and he and the ruling classes made sure it had no power
  • few if any of the institutions of civic society
  • and a ‘culture of violence, brutality and scant regard for human life’ (p.113) as my reviews of some of its classic fiction tend to confirm (Dr Zhivago, Tales From the Don, Red Cavalry, One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich)

The weakness of inter-war democracy

Kershaw has a fascinating passage examining the post-war political systems of every country in Europe (pp.123-133) which shows exactly why ‘democracy’ had such thin roots. Later on, a similar survey explains why these weak democracies almost all collapsed into authoritarian regimes by the time of, or during the second war (pp.183-192). European democratic systems during this period:

1. Used electoral voting systems which encouraged weak government. Many used variations of proportional representation, which may, on the one hand, have led to general assemblies which were accurate reflections of national views, but also led to weak governments which followed each other with bewildering speed:

  • Spain had 34 governments between 1902 and 1923
  • Portugal 45 administrations between 1910 and 1926
  • Yugoslavia had 45 political parties
  • Italy had 6 changes of government between 1919 and 1922
  • France had six different governments in just over a year, April 1925 and July 1926

2. Disillusioned much of the population with their mixture of incompetence, endless squabbling, corruption, all too often giving the sense that politicians put party interest above national interest. This allowed extremists to tar all democratic politicians with neglecting the Nation, even accusations of treason.

3. This created what Kershaw calls a ‘political space’ in the newly-created countries – or countries with new political systems – into which broad sections of the populations were all-too-ready to let a Strong Man step and run the country properly:

  • Admiral Miklos Horthy in Hungary in 1920
  • Mussolini in Italy in 1922
  • General Primo de Rivera in Spain 1923
  • in Albania Ahmed Zogu seized power in 1924 and declared himself King Zog
  • General Pilsudski took control in Poland 1926
  • General Gomes de Costa took power in Portugal in 1926

On the eve of the Second World War only about eleven countries in Europe were functioning democracies and they were all located in the north and the west – Britain, Ireland, France, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and tiny Iceland; whereas about 60% of Europe lived in 16 countries under repressive, authoritarian rule with curtailed civil rights and minorities facing discrimination and persecution: in the south Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece; in the East Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Yugoslavia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and slap-bang in the middle, the largest country in Germany, the nation that set the tone, Germany.


What is fascism and how does it take hold?

Kershaw is best known as a historian of Hitler and the Nazis and you can feel the depth of his knowledge when he comes to describe the situation in Germany after the war, during the boom years of the mid-1920s, during the Depression (1929-33), and as he explains the reason for the Nazis’ appeal and rise in each of these periods.

But all too often histories of the Nazis focus so exclusively on the uniqueness of the German context that the reader is hard-pressed to draw broader conclusions. An excellent thing about this book is that it is a conscious attempt to cover the history of all of Europe, so that in each of the micro-periods it’s divided into, Kershaw goes out of his way to explain the situation in most if not all of Europe’s 30 or so countries; how, for example, the onset of the Depression affected not only Britain, France and Germany (which you always get in the standard histories) but countries right across Europe, from Spain to Greece, Norway to Portugal.

This proves extremely useful when he gets to the rise of the Nazis and their successful seizure of power (Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933 and within 6 months had crushed all other rival sources of power, all other political parties, the parliament, trades unions, universities, professions, every aspect of a modern state had either been Nazified or abolished).

Useful because after explaining all this, he goes on to draw general conclusions, to define what Fascism is, to ask Why Fascism succeeded in Italy and Germany and Why Fascism failed everywhere else. This has all kinds of benefits, one is it allows him to draw a distinction between regimes which were right-wing and authoritarian but not actually Fascist.

1. What is Fascism?

Kershaw says that trying to define Fascism is like trying to nail jelly to a wall because its core attribute is hyper-nationalism i.e. glorification of the nation with its special language and history and traditions – and the precise details of each nation’s history and culture will vary according to circumstances.

Thus an attempt to hold a pan-Fascist Congress in Geneva in 1934 failed because a) Germany didn’t bother to turn up b) the other delegates couldn’t agree joint plans of action.

These caveats notwithstanding, Kershaw says Fascism includes:

  • hyper-nationalist emphasis on the unity of an integral nation which gains its identity from the cleansing of all who don’t belong – foreigners, ethnic minorities, undesirables
  • racial exclusiveness (though not necessarily biological racism of the Nazi type) with an insistence on the special, unique and superior quality of the nation
  • radical, violent commitment to the complete destruction of political enemies – communists, liberals, democrats, sometimes conservatives
  • emphasis on militarism and manliness, usually involving paramilitary organisations
  • belief in authoritarian leadership

Some also had irredentist goals i.e. reclaiming lost territory. Some were anti-capitalist, reorganising economies along corporatist lines, abolishing trade unions and directing the economy through corporations of industries.

All these elements can be present in authoritarian, right-wing governments which wanted to overthrow or dismantle the existing state and replace it with nationalist, authoritarian rule. What distinguishes Fascism is its insistence on total commitment to bend the collective will to the creation of an entirely new nation, expressed in ideas like the New Man, New Society.

Most right-wing authoritarian regimes (like all the South American dictatorships of the 1970s) essentially want to conserve the existing social order, and eliminate the left-communist, union elements which threaten it. Fascism goes much further. Fascism is a revolutionary movement because it seeks to sweep away the existing order and replace it with a new, totally unified society which will produce New Human Beings, a higher form of people who express the quintessence of the Nation, and of the epic national qualities

2. Why does Fascism succeed?

1. Elites lose faith in, and control of, democracy The most important factor in the rise of Fascism – of the extreme, radical Right – is whether the forces of conservatism – business, military, financial and social elites – believe they can get their way through the existing political and social order, or not. If these powers in society retain the belief they can work through the existing system they will support it. Only when they have completely lost faith in the existing system, or believe they have lost the ability to control it, will the elites help to, or acquiesce in, overthrowing it.

In this interpretation, the key to avoiding Fascism is ensuring that all or most elements of these powerful elites believe the existing (parliamentary, democratic) system is the best mechanism for getting their way, or some of it. Only when the existing system has been completely discredited, and the elites feel they are losing control of it and look around for alternatives, does the space open up for radical political change.

Rule 1: Keep the ruling elites invested in the parliamentary system

2. Fascists play up the threat of communism (and atheism) The second factor is the threat of communism as it affects two sectors of society, the elites and the middle classes.

The realistic prospect of a communist regime coming to power and implementing real communist policies (nationalising all industries, confiscating private property) obviously threatens the interests of the business, economic, class elites. If these interests feel that the existing parliamentary system really is going to allow hard-core Socialist or communist governments to administer Socialist policies, then they will intervene to prevent it.

But communism doesn’t just threaten the elite. It also directly threatens the jobs and livelihoods and cultural capital of a large part of the population, the so-called middle classes, which covers a wide range from the professions (doctors, lawyers) through small businessmen, shopkeepers, small craftsmen and artisans and so on.

Historically, the majority of Fascist supporters have not been from the aristocracy or elites (who often look down on fascist vulgarity) but from the threatened and pressurised middle classes.

The elites will have a large number of the population on their side if these people, too, feel threatened by radical socialist policies, and not only by their economic policies but by their attacks on traditional culture.

Spain 1936 is an example where the new aggressively socialist government threatened not only the property and livelihoods of the big landowners and big business, and a wide tranche of the middle classes, petit-bourgeoisie and so on. They also directly threatened the Catholic church and all its values, patriarchy, the traditional family, the sanctity of marriage and the family, and so on, not really having calculated how many traditionalists and believers that would antagonise. They created, in other words, an impressively powerful coalition of enemies.

Kershaw has a section specifically addressing the role of the Protestant churches and the Catholic church during the crisis years of the 1930s and the war. What comes over loud and clear is that the Pope and the Catholic Church, although horrified by the Nazis, thought the communists would be even worse.

Same in Spain. It’s well known that Hitler and Mussolini gave material aid to General Franco, flying his troops in from Africa and bombing Republican strongholds. Less well-known that Britain and France, after some hesitation, decided to adopt a policy of strict neutrality

Rule 2: Avoid the threat of genuinely socialist, let alone communist, policies

3. Widespread grievances, specially about lost wars or lost land Political parties don’t exist in a vacuum, they need supporters. Voters, populations, peoples don’t migrate to extreme parties without reason. Almost always it is because they feel threatened by loss or are aggrieved because they already have lost important aspects of their lives (jobs, money, status).

They believe they have something to lose from the way the current system is tending – status, property, livelihoods, jobs, money, cultural traditions and identity. A very large number of people in Weimar Germany felt they stood to lose, or already had lost, jobs or status. Classic Nazi members were white collar workers, small businessmen, former army officers or NCOs, shopkeepers, small craftsmen, farmers, a huge raft of people who had suffered monetary loss under the economic crisis, or loss of status (ex-army officers, unemployed white collar workers).

The entire German nation was united by a sense of grievance at the unfair provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, the loss of large parts of territory and the punitive reparations.

The Nazis played on the widespread grievances of disparate sectors of the population and claimed to speak for them against a corrupt system which they promised they would sweep away, and restore everyone’s losses (of jobs and status), and restore the losses of the entire nation.

Rule 3: Don’t give people and peoples long-running grievances

4. National pride and national enemies The easiest way to address people’s grievances is to bundle them up into all-encompassing calls for a revival of the nation. Pretty much all Germans felt humiliated by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, so it wasn’t very rocket science for the Nazis to make one of the main planks a call for National Revival.

And the easiest way to rally national pride, national revival, national rebirth, is to identify some kind of internal enemy who stands in the way. For the Nazis it was their mad irrational hatred of Jews (who, it is always shocking to recall, made up just 0.76% of the German population). Around the same time Stalin was uniting the mass population behind him by attacking ‘kulak’s, ‘saboteur’s etc. All authoritarian regimes are quick to identify enemies and rally the majority of the population against them.

It’s tricky because calls for national revival are an extremely common tactic of all politicians, and many people are patriotic in a relatively harmless way. It obviously becomes toxic when it becomes mixed with calls to defeat ‘enemies’, either internal or external. ‘Make America Great Again’ is fine in itself, until you start blaming the Mexicans or the Chinese for everything. Or the Jews. Or the Liberals or the Socialists etc.

Rule 4: Be wary of calls to national pride, nationalism and national revival which rely on demonising an ‘enemy’ 

5. Economic crisis Implicit in the above is the context of the economic or social situation becoming so extreme and dire that a) the large percentage of the population cease to have faith in the system b) parties of the extreme Left or extreme Right can come into existence, get a purchase on the population, and get into the political system.

Rule 5: Avoid extreme economic or social failure

6. Unstable political systems Political systems like proportional representation, which cater to every political element in a society, allow the proliferation of small, often extreme parties. Once established, extreme parties have the potential to grow quickly and challenge the status quo. This is what the Nazis did in Germany.

This is less likely in ‘mature’ democracies with winner-takes-all systems like Britain and the USA. Our systems are dominated by two main parties, which are themselves flexible and changing coalitions of interests, which ensure that most views have a political ‘home’ and give a broad spectrum of beliefs at least the possibility of seeing their views and policies implemented.

Even in a stable democracy like Britain’s, it is still possible for new parties to erupt and threaten the status quo if the social movement/mood they reflect is powerful enough. This is what UKIP did to the British political system in the lead-up to the Brexit Referendum. What Boris Johnson then did was in line with the long tradition of mature Western democracies, he incorporated most of UKIP’s policies (‘Get Brexit Done’) into one of the two mainstream parties (the Conservatives) thus drawing its teeth, neutralising it, and maintaining the stability of the two-party system. If it resulted in the Conservatives moving to the right that in fact reflects the wishes of a large part of the UK population who voted for Brexit and voted for Boris.

Mature democracies incorporate and neutralise radical elements. Immature democracies allow radical elements to establish themselves and attract support.

Rule 6: Incorporate potentially disruptive movements into the existing system – don’t keep them outside to become a focal point for destabilisation

Kershaw summarises:

Fascism’s triumph depended upon the complete discrediting of state authority, weak political elites who could no longer ensure that a system would operate in their interests, the fragmentation of party politics, and the freedom to build a movement that promised a radical alternative. (p.232)

3. The difference between fascism and authoritarianism

Authoritarianism – authoritarian dictatorships – generally want to keep things as they are or turn the clock back. They all share a loathing and fear of socialism or communism not only because it’s a direct threat to their wealth and power but because it threatens change, threatens to sweep away old values and traditions. Authoritarians want to save the nation by preserving its (conservative) traditions from change.

Fascism, on the contrary, is a revolutionary and dynamic ideology which seeks to sweep away time-honoured and conservative institutions. It seeks a comprehensive rebirth of the nation, freed from the shackles of the past, liberated to fulfil its historic destiny (power, land, international respect), but also to create New People in a New Society.

Thus Kershaw is at pains to point out that, although most European nations became dictatorships on the brink of or during the Second World War – most of these were not fascist. They were military dictatorships first and foremost, which may have used this or that aspect of ‘fascist’ ideology or trappings as suited them, but without the fundamental fascist attribute of wanting to transform society.

  • When General Ioannis Metaxis established his dictatorship in Greece in 1936, his avowed intention was to save the nation from communism, and he tried to set up ‘fascist’ organisations but failed to secure anything like the total social control of a Hitler or Mussolini.
  • When General Edward Smigly-Ridz took control of Poland in 1937 as ‘Leader of the Nation’, the country became more nationalistic and more anti-semitic but ‘there was nothing dynamic about this form of authoritarianism. No major attempt was made to mobilise the population. The regime was content to control the society. It had no ambitions to change it’ (p.262).
  • Even General Franco, after his military coup of July 1936, took a year to sort out the political aspects of what was essentially a military project. He co-opted the ideology of the banned Falange Party and coerced all the other right-wing organisations into joining it (p.240), but the party was only ever a political aspect of what remained a military rule. This was the polar opposite Germany, where a fanatically organised, civilian political party controlled the military as just one of the many levers of its total control over society.

Another fairly obvious difference is that some of these authoritarian regimes locked up fascists as well as communists, socialist, liberals, journalists etc. For example the Polish and Portuguese dictatorships (pp.262, 264) or Admiral Horthy’s authoritarian regime in Hungary, which banned the genuinely fascist Hungarian National Socialist Party and imprisoned its leader, Ferenc Szálasi (p.263).

In other words, for many authoritarian dictatorships, real hard-core fascism was just one more subversive or disruptive element which needed to be controlled.

One way of thinking about this is the contrast between merely authoritarian regimes and totalitarian regimes. Totalitarian regimes want your soul as well as your body, your mind as well as your vote. They insist on total control of every aspect of their citizens lives in order to create a new type of human being.

Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state. (Mussolini)

Another way of thinking about the difference between authoritarian dictatorships and genuinely fascist regimes is that none of the dictatorships threatened the peace of Europe – the Western democracies didn’t lose any sleep about the foreign policy of Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Portugal. Even Spain, whose drawn-out civil war was violent and traumatic, never threatened to spill beyond its borders, never threatened the peace of Europe.

Unlike the irredentist and imperialist ambitions of the true fascist regimes, Italy and, most of all, Germany.


The rise of the Right and collapse of the Left in the 1930s

Putting the usual culprits Italy and Germany in the context of the wider, in fact of the complete European scene, brings out a fact I had never fully grasped before.

I suppose I knew that the 1930s were the era of The Dictator – although Kershaw’s review of every dictatorship in Europe really rams this fact home. The deeper point is that the catastrophic economic collapse of the early 1930s, which devastated nations, threw millions out of work, and led many to think capitalism was failing – did not produce a shift to the Left, in favour of thinkers and politicians who’d spent a lifetime criticising capitalism and supporting workers movements – it resulted, all across Europe, in a seismic shift to the Right.

The 1930s was the decade of the failure of the Left.

Why? Because despite its appeal to the kind of intellectuals whose works survive and are studied to this day, for the majority of the population the Left, in either its socialist or communist form, threatened the interests of:

  • most of the ruling class
  • most of the middle class
  • most if not all of the peasants – some may have heard rumours about Stalin’s forced collectivisation in Soviet Russia, all knew that the Left wanted to destroy the Church and traditional religion
  • even a portion of the skilled working class who stood to lose their perks and privileges
  • not to mention the large number of criminals and dossers who are generally left out of sociological calculations, the kind of people who fill the pages of novels like Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz

In other words, the hard, radical Left always represents a minority of a society, and is always opposed by a majority in that society.

Which makes it all the more striking that such a disproportionate majority of the intellectuals of many of these societies moved to the Left. Kershaw has a chapter giving a tourist’s-eye view of the ‘intellectual life’ of Europe in the 30s and 40s (which jumps around superficially, as historians’ quick compliance with the need to mention something about ‘culture’ so often do) – but the general drift is that from Gramsci through Orwell, Sartre to the Frankfurt School, the majority of Europe’s significant intellectuals took a left-wing, often out-and-out communist, view of the continent’s problems.

In other words, a high proportion of the intellectual class of Europe was profoundly out of step with the majority of their populations.

That’s one rather crude interpretation, anyway. The deeper reasons for the shift to the Right bear investigating and pondering. A deep analysis would give insights into why, in our time, years of austerity, uncertainty and economic stagnation since the 2008 Crash have resulted not in a mass outpouring of socialist idealism but, once again, led to the rise of right-wing leaders around the world. At the same time the intellectual and academic classes remain securely embedded in their progressive and left-wing ghettos (universities), out of touch with the populations they claim to interpret, and blankly incredulous of the leaders who keep getting elected (Trump, Johnson).

To return to the period under consideration, Germany’s dynamic Nazi ideology is in fact the exception that proves the rule to most of Europe during the period. So much ink has been spilt about Hitler and the Nazis but they were the product of a very distinctive set of circumstances – to take two of them, the fact that they were in Europe’s largest and most powerful nation, and that the entire nation felt huge grievance over the Versailles Treaty.

Focusing so much on bloody Hitler and his Nazi Party, whose historical situation was unique and so whose precise brand of turbo-charged Fascism is never going to recur, has distracted historians from the much more practical task of analysing the reasons for the rise of right-wing authoritarian regimes in general – which do recur with worrying regularity, which were widespread during the 1930s and 40s, which dominated Latin America and southern Europe (Portugal, Spain, Greece and Turkey had military dictatorships in the 1970s) in my boyhood, and which people worry are now reappearing in the guise of various ‘populist’ leaders.

Historians’ focus on one unique event (the Nazis) is, in my opinion, a distraction from analysing and thinking about how to prevent the far more common (almost mundane) phenomenon of military coups and authoritarian dictatorships.

The accidental rise of Adolf Hitler

As anybody who’s read about the period knows, Hitler didn’t storm to power, he was appointed by political elites who thought they could manipulate and control him to get their way. They did so because in late 1932 the Nazis had secured the largest share of the election vote and so had to be included in whatever government was set up – but, when they finally decided to appoint the vulgar little corporal Chancellor, the behind-the-scenes wheeler-dealers made sure to pack Hitler’s ‘cabinet’ with members of other parties. They thought that would moderate his policies. None of them had any idea how utterly ruthless Hitler would turn out to be in eliminating all these restraints on his power.

So possibly the key fact about Hitler’s rise to power is that it was the result of a mistake in political strategy by Germany’s political elite which had, by late 1932, lost all confidence in the ability of the Weimar parliamentary democracy to deal with the country’s severe economic crisis.


Conclusions

Avoiding Fascism What these ideas suggest is that avoiding Fascism is nothing to do with the Left-wing obsession with promoting workers rights, womens rights, minority rights and so on. It involves ensuring that the powerful economic, social and military elites of a country continue to have faith in some form of parliamentary democracy as the best mechanism of protecting their interests.

Any political moves which threaten or jeopardise their interests, in effect, open the door to right-wing coups and worse.

Of course you probably require a number of other factors and preconditions, at the very least a) a political culture which accepts or has a tradition of coups, such as Spain’s with its long tradition of pronunciamentos b) a really severe economic or social crisis which the parliamentary system manifestly fails to manage.

Avoiding Europe If you were American or Chinese or anyone looking at Europe from the outside it would be hard to avoid the conclusion that a) Europe is incapable of governing itself b) Europe is the most savage, bestial continent on earth.

For all their instability, nothing on the scale of either the First or Second World Wars took place in Latin America, Africa or the Indian sub-continent.

One way of looking at the Cold War is that, at the same time as the Soviet Union acquired a deep buffer zone to protect its western border (i.e the Eastern Bloc countries) it was also taking control of the very region which contained the most ethnically mixed populations, had shown the most political instability, had been the location of terrible ethnic cleansing and enormous deaths.

In a sense the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe liberated Western Europe from the burden dragging at its heel and, along with massive American financial and military aid, freed it (Western Europe) for the 30 years of economic growth and prosperity which followed.

It was Cecil Rhodes who made a speech in which he told his audience to remember that they were English and so had won first prize in the lottery of life. Obviously, at the time he was referring to our membership of the biggest empire the world had ever seen – but reading accounts of the twentieth century like this give the idea a whole new meaning.

Put simply, being born in England in the twentieth century meant you weren’t born on the continent of Europe which, as Kershaw vividly emphasises, between 1939 and 1945 descended into hell, real hell, the utter collapse of civilisation, mass slaughter, death camps, mass imprisonment and torture, gas chambers, the endless rape and murder of civilians, displacement and starvation.

In the entire catalogue of destruction, devastation and misery that made up the Second World War, the murder of Europe’s Jews was the lowest point of mankind’s descent into the abyss of inhumanity. The fires of the death-camp crematoria were almost literally the physical manifestation of hell on earth. (p.369)

Both my parents lived through the war as children, experiencing the Blitz and then the V-bombs, which wasn’t pleasant. But nonetheless they both had the immeasurable good fortune not to have been born on the Continent of Atrocity, and in the terrible middle years of the 20th century, that really was like winning a prize in the lottery of life.

Understanding Europe Which leads to a final thought, which I’ll keep brief: maybe it is impossible for an English person to understand Europe. We were never invaded, devastated, forced to collaborate with the conqueror, to round up and deport English Jews, to execute our own socialists and liberals, and then reduced to starvation and chaos amid the smoking ruins of our cities.

The extremity of the experiences of every other nation in continental Europe during the war years (and described by Kershaw in gruelling detail) are beyond our experience or imagining. And so we never experienced anything like the same cultural or political extremity which wartime conditions produced. In the first post-war election in France, the Communist Party won 26% of the vote, in Britain 0.4%, reflecting the two nations very very different recent experiences (p.488).

The great thoughts of Gramsci, Benjamin, Horkheimer, Adorno, Sartre and so on have dazzled generations of British students but bear no relationship at all to the history, culture and politics of the UK and its population. Which is why all those humanities students, drilled in their Benjamin and Lukacs, who voted for Jeremy Corbyn, helped him lead Labour to its most crushing electoral defeat in 50 years.

Brexit It also explains something about Brexit. The ideal of a European Union has a real meaning for hundreds of millions of Europeans, raised for generations to believe it is better to be politically and economically united than to fight each other to the death as their grand-parents and great-grand-parents did.

But Britain really was an exception to the history of this terrible period, and that ‘exceptionialism’, for better or worse, was, during the period Kershaw describes, and obviously still is, a strong thread in British culture and population.

(I’m not shoehorning Brexit and ‘Europe’ into this review: the last 20 pages of Kershaw’s book explicitly discuss these questions. He describes the descent of the Iron Curtain across Europe, the continent’s division into two blocs being crystallised by the Marshall Plan, announced in June 1947. He quotes several Americans involved in co-ordinating Western Europe’s response, not least George Marshall himself complaining that the British wanted to keep aloof from Europe, that the British wanted to benefit from a scheme designed to create an economically unified Europe ‘while at the same time maintaining the position of being not quite a European country’ – quoted page 516.)

I’m not approving or disapproving Brexit, just pointing out that a book like this, which doesn’t hold back when it comes to describing the terror, murder, torture, holocausts, purges, massacres, reprisals, ethnic cleansing, mass deportations, executions and rapes which took place all across continental Europe during these years, can’t help but make you reflect how lucky we were to escape almost all of it, and how the cultural and political consequences of that very real ‘exceptional’ destiny have shaped our politics right down to the present.

Random facts

The books is full of hundreds of facts, figures and anecdotes. A few grabbed my attention:

In Britain just short of 70,000 civilians were killed by German bombing. In one night the firebombing of Hamburg killed some 34,000 civilians. The Hiroshima atom bomb is estimated to have killed about 66,000 people on the day, from the blast and fires, although many more died in the weeks and months that followed.

At their core, both world wars were wars between Germany and Russia. I knew the German High Command in 1914 knew they had a window of opportunity to attack Russia before its army came up to full strength, therefore they had an incentive to attack Russia while they still could. I didn’t realise the Germany High Command felt exactly the same in the late 1930s. Thus in both world wars, a – if not the – fundamental factor was the German gamble to take on Russia, and do it in a hurry.

The Irish taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, was one of a very select few politicians, who sent the Germans a formal note of condolence on the death of Adolf Hitler, 30 April 1945 (p.387).

Hitler loved Disney movies. He was delighted when Goebbels gave him 18 Mickey Mouse cartoons for Christmas 1937 (p.465)

The Venice Film Festival was founded in 1932 in Mussolini’s Italy. Winners of Best Italian Film and Best Foreign Film were awarded ‘Mussolini Cups’ (p.466). I think they should revive that tradition.


Credit

To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1939 by Ian Kershaw was published by Allen Lane in 2015. All references are to the Penguin paperback edition.

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The Second World War

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After the Second World War

My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl (1979)

‘Is this exactly what happened?’ Sir Charles asked me.
‘Every word of it, sir, is the gospel truth,’ I lied. (p.45)

Apart from his well-known children’s novels, Dahl also wrote movie screenplays, TV scripts, and some fifty-four short stories for adults which appeared in various magazines throughout his career, the first in 1942, the last in 1988. It was these which formed the basis of the Tales of the Unexpected TV series I watched as a teenager in the 1970s.

My Uncle Oswald is his only full-length novel for adults, sort of. The fictional character of Oswald Hendryks Cornelius is described as:

‘the connoisseur, the bon vivant, the collector of spiders, scorpions and walking sticks, the lover of opera, the expert on Chinese porcelain, the seducer of women, and without much doubt, the greatest fornicator of all time.’

He first appeared in two short stories, The Visitor and Bitch, first published in Playboy magazine and published in book form in the 1974 collection Switch Bitch, which I’ve reviewed.

It’s no surprise that Uncle Oswald eventually had a novel devoted to him, indeed it’s a surprise it took so long, he is such a garish, larger-than-life and transgressively monstrous creation.

As ‘the greatest fornicator of all time’, by the age of seventeen he’s already ‘had’ some fifty English lovelies, and goes to stay in Paris, where he swives nubile French daughters (Madamoiselle Nicole), the wife of the British ambassador (Lady Makepiece) and an energetic Turkish gentlelady.

After you adjust to the bantering tone about sexual conquests and the deliberately obscene subject matter, you begin to realise that arguably the real appeal of the book is the deliberately dated and nostalgic setting. The nameless narrator claims to be quoting verbatim from scandalous Uncle Oswald’s multi-volume diaries, specifically Volume XX, written in the 1938 when Oswald was 43 years old and much of the texture of the book is filled with young Oswald’s appreciation for fine wine, gourmet meals, and very early motor cars.

Thus the opening sequence is set as long ago as 1912, during the pre-Great War imperial heyday, when a chap could still travel the world flourishing his big British passport.

1. The Sudanese Blister Beetle aphrodisiac (1912)

The first story tells how Uncle Oswald made his fortune by learning, from a disreputable relation of his, about the most powerful aphrodisiac in the world made from the ground shells of the Sudanese Blister Beetle. Inspired, he sets off himself to the Sudan where he does a deal with the head porter at his hotel to get a few bags full of the precious powder, and brings it back to Paris.

Here he is staying with friends of his posh father (William Cornelius, member of the Diplomatic Service) and sets up a little chemistry lab in the rooms he’s been allotted, and proceeds to produce home-made aphrodisiac pills which, with an eye for marketing, he describes as products of a certain Professor Yousoupoff’s secret formula (foreign names impress the gullible).

Put in summary form like this, you can see that – although the theme is supposedly pornographic, as Oswald couples with women tall and short, foreign and British – in fact the basic ideas and the childish way they’re described (‘the greatest fornicator in the world’, ‘the most powerful aphrodisiac known to man’) are closely related to his children’s books (Danny the Champion of the World, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and so is the often funny and deliberately ludicrous way he describes his umpteen couplings:

‘Were you ever a gym teacher?’ I asked her.
‘Shut up and concentrate,’ she said, rolling me around like a lump of puff pastry. (p.34)

Also played for laughs is the conceit that Oswald is subject to vivid hallucinations while he is on the job – thus the second time he swives the nubile 19-year-old daughter of his hosts in Paris, we are treated to an extended and deliberately comic comparison of the whole thing to a medieval tournament, in which he appears as a knight in armour with an unusually long, firm lance and goes about his business to the enthusiastic cheers of the crowd – ‘Thrust away, Sir Oswald! Thrust away!’ (p.27)

There is also a good deal of humour at the expense of national stereotypes, especially in the dinner he gets invited to at the British Ambassador’s residence in Paris, attended by ambassadors from Germany, Russia, Japan, Peru, Bulgaria and so on, each a lively cartoon version of their national stereotype from the short, ultra-polite Japanese to the gruff German with his thick accent. It is to this assembly of bemedalled men that Oswald first explains the nature of the powerful aphrodisiac he has discovered.

The little Mexican clapped his hands together hard and cried out, ‘That is exactly how I wish to go when I die! From too much women!’
‘From too much goats and donkeys iss more likely in Mexico,’ the German ambassador snorted. (p.43)

When we are told (a bit later on) that a sexy young woman student he embroils in his schemes is named Yasmin Howcomely (p.90) we remember that Dahl worked on two movie adaptation of Ian Fleming novels – You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the female lead of which is named Truly Scrumptious). And these connections made me see the gruff and candid German ambassador in this scene being played by the fabulous Gert Fröbe, who plays Goldfinger in the film of the same name, and the cartoon dictator, Baron Bomburst, in Chitty Chitty

Anyway, Oswald manages to enchant these rich VIPs with visions of the staying power afforded by his aphrodisiac pills and (very cannily) gives them each a free sample presented on a puff of cotton wool in a stylish little jewellery box. Soon they are coming back for more and he sells them for an outrageous amount (1,000 Francs) to the national ambassadors and, by word of mouth, to their fellow countrymen who come flocking.

So that’s how wicked Uncle Oswald made his first fortune.

2. The freezing sperm scam (1919)

The Great War comes, Oswald serves his country and ends the war as a captain with a Military Cross. He goes up to Cambridge and studies Chemistry with a brilliant if rather shabby tutor, A.R. Woresley, whose moustache is coloured yellow by his pipe.

One evening, over a fine bottle of port (Oswald who is, as you might expect, a confident connoisseur of wines and spirits) Woresley tells him a cock and bull story about how he has carried out extensive experiments and perfected a method for freezing sperm, specifically bull sperm.

This is the pretext for a grotesque story about the tutor and his brother stealing the sperm of the prize bull of his brothers neighbouring farm, by taking along an in-heat cow one night, smuggling it into the field with the bull and, as the bull gets and erection and goes to cover the cow, instead manhandling his pizzle into a fake rubber cow vagina, which then captures the bull’s ejaculate, with the tutor then getting onto his pushbike to wobble off along country lanes carrying a bag with a fake cow vagina full of bull semen back to the lab they’ve rigged up at his brother’s farm complete with liquid nitrogen to freeze the semen.

(In case it wasn’t obvious before, this story makes you realise the book is not intended as pornography, even soft pornography, but is instead a Rabelaisian satire on the whole preposterous subject of sex and its indignities and absurdities.)

Student Oswald goes home and lies in bed at night pondering the implications of his tutor’s experiment and realising… there is a fortune to be made selling the frozen semen of Great Men and Geniuses to women who want to be the mothers of the children of Great Men.

He recruits a lively young filly from Girton – the half-Persian Yasmin Howcomely mentioned above – who is sex incarnate.

The plan is for her to seduce the great and the good, writers and discoverers and scientists, with a sideline in the kings of Europe – slipping them each a dose of beetle powder, then clapping a sturdy rubber johnny over their manhoods as they attain rutting speed, in which the precious spermatazoa can be collected, before she makes her excuses and dashes back to Uncle Oswald who’ll be somewhere with the liquid nitrogen ready to pack and store the precious fluid.

What could possibly go wrong with such a hare-brained scheme?

The tutor thinks it can’t possibly work, at which point Oswald – who loves a challenge – makes Woresley his first conquest, sending Yasmin to him, getting him to sign a form for her (supposed) autograph book, and then to eat a chocolate with the fateful beetle powder in it. From his concealed position Oswald watches while stuffy, staid old Woresely is transformed into a virile stud and ravishes young Yasmin, who manages to collect a rubber johnny full of his sperm. Next day Oswald brandishes a container of the sperm and his signature in the tutor’s face. QED. Theory proved.

So they form a team and draw up a hit list of the Great Men of the age (an interesting list in itself). When it comes to the royals, Oswald reveals that he has faked introductory letters from King George V to all the crowned heads of Europe introducing Yasmin as an aristocratic lady in need of a private audience about a sensitive matter.

Imagine a particularly bawdy, not to say crude pantomime, and you have the spirit of the thing. The whole world of the arts and sciences is reviewed not in terms of achievement, but their potential spunk donations. The only snag is that the list of Great Men to be despunked includes some rather elderly ones that they worry might have a heart attack during the process.

‘Now see here, Cornelius,’ A.R. Woresley said. ‘I won’t be a party to the murder of Mr Renoir or Mr Manet. I don’t want blood on my hands.’
‘You’ll have a lot of valuable sperm on your hands and that’s all,’ I said. ‘Leave it to us.’ (p.115)

Woresley will remain Cambridge, doing his day job but also setting up the permanent sperm bank, while Oswald and Howcomely tour Europe collecting the sperm of Great Men!

So they set off on a grand tour of Europe and the first king to be milked is King Alfonso of Spain who, we discover (in this scandalous fiction at any rate), has a clockwork sofa which moves up and down and so does all the hard work for him while he remains more or less motionless ‘as befits a king’. Yasmin bounces out of the palace a few hours later with a johnny full of royal sperm and Oswald motors her back to the hotel where he’s set up a small lab to mix it with preservative, and then freeze it in liquid nitrogen.

And that sets the pattern for the following fifty or so pages. Next up is 76-year-old Renoir who is confined to a wheelchair, but still manages to deliver the goods and who leaves Yasmin in raptures about his greatness.

Followed by: Monet, Stravinsky, Picasso, Matisse, Proust (for whom Yasmin dresses like and pretends to be a boy, the seduction treated like a Whitehall farce), Nijinsky, Joyce, and then Puccini in his Italian villa – in the moonlight by the lake where Oswald prepares Yasmin by teaching her one of the maestro’s favourite arias. Thus when she starts singing it outside his window, Puccini is smitten, and swiftly has his way with her, but is charming and amusing and courteous.

Compare and contrast with Sigmund Freud, who admits this troubled young lady to his consulting rooms who promptly gives him a chocolate (laced with the aphrodisiac), the whole encounter a broad satire on Freud (who Dahl obviously despises).

And so on. It might have seemed a funny idea at the time but this litany of encounters with famous men soon pales, not least because the pattern is the same time – Yasmin introduces herself, offers them a chocolate spiked with beetle dust and precisely 9 minutes later they are stricken with untamable lust, she pops a rubber johnny over their member, then lets herself be ravished, then finds some way to extricate herself (sometimes being forced to use a hatpin to jolt the man off her) before rushing outside to hand the johnny full of Great Man sperm over to Oswald, who motors them both back to his hotel room where he mixes it with a preservative, secretes it into tooth-pick thin straws (a convenient way of dividing up the sperm), then pops these into the cabinet of liquid nitrogen.

In Berlin they harvest Albert Einstein – the only one of the victims to smell a rat – and then worthy-but-dull Thomas Mann, before returning to Cambridge to deposit the straws of frozen semen at the master vat kept by Dr Woresley. And then an English tour taking in Joseph Conrad, H.G. Wells, Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle and an extended passage satirising pompous, opinionated, dray-as-dust vegetarian George Bernard Shaw.

I suppose a lot of the pleasure of the book is meant to come from a) the outrageousness of the central premise, compounded by b) satirical portraits of various great men, plus c) the comic vulgarity of the actual sexual descriptions, which often sound like a grown-up children’s story. Of the encounter with George Bernard Shaw:

‘There’s only one way when they get violent,’ Yasmin said. ‘I grabbed hold of his snozzberry and hung on to it like grim death and gave it a twist or two to make him hold still.’
‘Ow.’
‘Very effective.’
‘I’ll bet it is.’
‘You can lead them around anywhere you want like that.’
‘I’m sure.’
‘It’s like putting a twitch on a horse.’ (p.182)

In the book’s closing passages Oswald and Yasmin embark on another European tour, milking the kings of Belgium, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Denmark, Sweden but are finally brought up short with the king of Norway (the country of Dahl’s parents). For here Yasmin makes her first mistake and is merrily badmouthing the King of England and even pointing out the queen’s lovers, all on the basis that the beetle powder will kick in and transform the king when… the beetle powder kicks in on her. She has taken the wrong chocolate! She tries to jump on king Haakon and ravish him but he has his guard throw her out, where she reports all to Oswald and they decide to make a quick getaway to Sweden and so back to Cambridge.

And here the partnership falls apart. Yasmin has had enough, and who can blame her. Oswald wants to press on to America – Henry Ford, Edison, Alexander Graham Bell – but Yasmin insists on a month long break and says she’s going to stay with an uncle in Scotland.

They agree to reconvene in a month’s time and Oswald buys tickets on the Mauretania to sail to the States. Then he goes on a massive bender in London, bedding a different member of the aristocracy every night. Until a terrible day. He is dallying in the bath with a duchess who decides she’s had enough and wants to go home. Oswald is unwisely rude to her and she – having got out the bath, dried and got dressed – contrives to lean over the bath and play with his parts while secretly removing the bath plug. Result: there is a sudden tremendous suction of water and Oswald’s goolies are sucked down the hole. His screams of agony can be heard all across Mayfair! Which leads him to warn us against aristocratic women or, as he puts it in a long-cherished motto:

Ladies with titles
Will go for your vitals

It takes weeks to recover and he is still hobbling with swollen privates when he arrives back in Cambridge at old Woresley’s house to discover a note pinned to the door. They’ve scarpered! Yasmin has married Worsely! And they’ve done a bunk with all the Great Men sperm. All except Proust that is, who Yasmin didn’t take to at all.

Oswald goes mad and trashes Woresley’s house, demolishing every single piece of furniture. Then conceives his final plan. On the last page of the book he tells us how he finally made his fortune. He goes back out to Sudan and buys up the entire area where the rare Blister beetle breeds, sets up plantations with native labour and builds a refining factory in Khartoum. He establishes secret sales operations in the world’s leading cities (New York, London, Paris etc)

There is some last-minute throwaway satire on generals, for Oswald discovers that retired generals are his best sales agents. Why? Because there are retired generals in every country; they are efficient; they are unscrupulous; they are brave; they have little regard for human life; and they are not intelligent enough to cheat him.

If you add this to the page or so satirising aristocratic ladies a few pages earlier, it confirms your sense that, although the theme of the book is sex, its real purpose is to be a scattergun, blunderbus satire against all respectable values, people and institutions.

Kings, queens, aristocrats, inventors, Oxbridge dons, men and women all come in for Uncle Oswald’s robust, take-no-prisoners attitude. It is a bracing and hilarious read and like many an older satire, if the narrative structure, if the ‘plot’, feels patched together and made up as he goes along, that, too, is part of the satirical intent.

If the reader was expecting anything remotely serious or dignified or carefully planned, then the joke is on us, too.

Credit

My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl was published by Michael Joseph Ltd in 1979. All references are to the 1980 Penguin paperback edition.


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Related review

Ignorance by Milan Kundera (2002)

This is a really enjoyable book and feels like a return to form for Kundera. I hate to say it because it sounds like such a cliché, but it feels that the reason for this is simply to be that, after three novels set predominantly in France and in a Western consumer capitalist culture which Kundera can’t help but loathe and despise – this one returns to Czechoslovakia, to his homeland – and feels significantly more confident, relaxed, integrated, deep and thoughtful as a result.

It’s a novel about returning from exile. It’s set soon after the collapse of communism in 1989 and the liberation of Czechoslovakia from Russian rule, and describes the journeys back to newly-liberated Czechoslovakia of two émigrés, one man, one woman.

But it is a Kundera novel, so the narrative, such as it is, is routinely interspersed with digressions and thoughts and analyses, primarily about the characters’ perceptions and feelings, then of their personal situations, then of their positions as symbols of ‘the émigré’, then explanations of the broader historical background to their situation, and then, stepping right back from the present, Kundera aligns their ‘returns’ with a) the classical legend of Odysseus, maybe the greatest symbol in European literature of the Returner, and b) with passages about the different words in European languages which attempt to convey the many feelings of the returner, nostalgia, longing for home, and so on.

Ignorance

Thus we discover he is using the word ‘ignorance’ not at all in the common or garden sense of ‘lack of knowledge or information’, but in a subtler sense moderated by placing all around it words from other languages (such as the German Sehnsucht and the Czech stesk) which express ‘nostalgia’, longing, the act of missing something or someone – then by examining its Latin root, to produce a wider deeper definition:

To be unaware of, not know, not experience; to lack or miss. In that etymological light nostalgia seems something like the pain of ignorance, of not knowing. You are far away, and I don’t know what has become of you. My country is far away, and I don’t know what is happening there. (p.6)

Arguably, the rest of the text is an extended mediation on the meaning of this concept, the suffering of the exile, and the bewilderment of return.

Odysseus is doubly relevant: not just as a returner, but a returner after an absence of twenty years, he is surprisingly close to Kundera’s fictional character. It was in 1968 that the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia and suppressed of the Prague Spring, but only in 1969 that they imposed their new government which proceeded to implement its harsh crackdown on all liberals and dissidents. So it was 20 years later that Russian communism collapsed and the Russia-backed Czech communist government fell.

And Odysseus was away from his homeland (Ithaca) for a long 20 years: 10 years fighting at Troy, three wandering across the Mediterranean and having the extraordinary adventures all children learn about; then seven trapped by the magician Calypso, who was also his lover.

Now these disparate elements – geopolitics, personal stories, etymological precision and ancient myth – could easily have hung apart and pulled in different directions. In my opinion his use of these kinds of disparate elements, or different levels, failed to gel in the previous couple of novels.

But here they meld perfectly. All four of these levels or themes naturally complement each other. The feelings and experiences of the present-day émigrés really does illuminate your understanding of how Odysseus must have felt, pitching up in his homeland twenty years after leaving it. And Kundera’s subtle insights into Odysseus’s plight really does help to amplify the bitter experiences of his émigrés in the present day.

To both of them Kundera applies his insights about memory and forgetting, namely the idea developed in Identity that part of the point of friendship it to tell each other stories about the old days and keep memories alive. Exiled to a foreign land, with no friends, those memories atrophy and die. The more intense Odysseus’s longing for his native land – the less he can remember anything about it.

Émigrés gathered together in compatriot colonies keep retelling to the point of nausea the same stories, which thereby become unforgettable. But people who do not spend time with their compatriots, like Irena or Odysseus, are inevitably stricken with amnesia. The stronger their nostalgia, the emptier of recollections it becomes. (p.33, emphasis added)

Plus (as a big history fan) I am fascinated by the light Kundera sheds on the political and social and cultural changes which took place in a communist-dominated society, how it changed so quickly after the fall of communism, and the myriad little insights thrown up as his two protagonists move among this familiar but alien world.

For me, all of these elements come together to make a really fascinating and engaging book.

The characters

Irena

The woman protagonist, Irena, fled Czechoslovakia with her husband Martin, with one little girl and pregnant with another, back in the 1970s. Émigrés from communist countries weren’t all that welcome in the Paris of the 1970s, dominated by its communist party and the fashion for left-wing students. Her husband fell ill and died, and she had a hard time bringing up the girls (cleaning houses, caring for a paraplegic, p.28).

Emigration-dreams

All the émigrés have them, both she and her husband are plagued by them, dreams in which you are wandering the streets of a strange city and the see the uniforms of the Czech police and awake sweating in panic. Dreams like that. Sometimes they came during the day, in the middle of a meeting, a sudden shaft of memory, walking through a green part of Prague, for a moment, becomes more real than the real world. The continual eruption of the unconscious.

Gustaf

Then she met Gustaf, a Swede who’s fled his homeland to get away from his homeland. They become friends then lovers, then partners. He disconcerts her by saying his company are going to open up a small office in Prague. She wants to get away from the old life, not have it hanging over her all the time. Especially her self-centred, garrulous mother. After the fall of communism his company expands this to buying a house in central Prague, with a flat in the eaves where Gustaf stays on his business trips.

Now Irena flies back to Prague and is able to stay there, while she looks up her old friends and has a sort of hen night for women friends only. This scene registers their different reactions, some jealous, some bitter, everyone keen to tell how much they suffered, the ‘suffering contests’ (p.41).

All of this is interesting and moving and subtly described – very unlike the sex comedy shenanigans of the previous novels, Slowness and Identity, which I didn’t like. When references to Odysseus’s experiences as an exile returning after twenty years are interleaved with Irena’s it doesn’t feel contrived or arch; the two complement each other really well.

Josef

In the airport Irena spots a man she knew twenty years earlier. He had been someone else’s boyfriend who she had flirted with at some party downstairs in a bar in Prague. But then she got married and left the country. But she’d always wondered what would have happened. When she introduces herself to him, he is flustered and shy.

Then we cut to his point of view and learn why he is flustered. He is called Josef and he has absolutely no memory of her whatever, can’t even remember her name. He also fled Czechoslovakia, settling in Denmark and marrying. Now his wife is dead and he is making the pilgrimage home.

The great broom

He wriggles free of her and goes on his own quest in Prague, his own odyssey. He goes to the cemetery where his parents are buried and is appalled by how cramped it is, overshadowed by high rise blocks and freeways. He reflects than an invisible broom has swept across the landscape of his childhood, wiping away everything familiar.

And it seems to be getting faster. Things changed slowly ‘back in the day’, now they change before your eyes. This is brought home in the dining room of the hotel where he’s staying and he realises spoken Czech has changed in intonation and tone in the twenty years he’s been away. Now it feels like ‘an unknown language’ (p.55)

Josef’s brother

Then Josef goes on to meet his brother and the sister-in-law who never liked him. I really liked this scene, the way his sense of the feelings of the other two fluctuate, how Kundera captures the changing mood, the sudden embarrassing silences. He realises he must have been seen as The Betrayer, the lucky younger son who ran away. His flight bedevilled his brother’s career as a surgeon, casting a blight over it. Josef had turned his back on a career as a doctor (turning his back on the family tradition pursued by his grandfather and father) in order to become a vet. The motives for his flight are examined.

Josef left in a hurry and mailed his brother the key to his apartment, saying take what he wanted. Now his brother gives him a bundle of notes and journals and diaries and letters. Back at his hotel he goes through them. He realises he has forgotten most of his childhood.

The law of masochistic memory: as segments of their lives melt into oblivion, men slough off whatever they dislike, and feel lighter, freer. (p.76)

He is disconcerted at the combination of ‘sentimentality and sadism’ (p.83) displayed by the diaries of himself as a frustrated virginal teenager.

The teenage girl

Kundera now creates ‘out of the mists of the time when Josef was in high school’ a virginal girl his own age who has just split up with her first boyfriend. She enjoys the fist pangs of ‘nostalgia’, the first teenage tryouts of that feeling of wanting to ‘go back’ (in her case to the happy days when she was going out with X; but you see how this mention of nostalgia ties in with the book’s theme).

She goes out with young Josef. He is petulant and frustrated. When she announces she is going off on a school skiing trip he has a tantrum and dumps her.

Josef tears up his diary and throws the pieces away. But,

The life we’ve left behind us has a bad habit of stepping out of the shadows, of bringing complaints against us, of taking us to court. (p.90)

Gustaf and Irena’s relationship decays

I thought the book was about Irena’s first and major visit back to Prague, but this passage makes it clear that, her partner Gustaf having opened an office in the city, she found herself spending more and more time there, watching as Prague rapidly becomes westernised, repaints itself and fills up with tourists.

Meanwhile her relationship with Gustaf peters out. They stop having sex. They stop even talking because he enjoys talking in American English, talking loud and long, whereas she clings to the French she had learned in Paris, and behind that to the Czech she grew up with, neither of which Gustaf understands. Now, meeting the strange man (Josef) in the airport has revived something in her. He had given her the number of his hotel and when she gets through after trying half a dozen times, she is thrilled and aroused at his voice.

All this contrasts with the gabby loudmouth Gustaf who she can hear downstairs keeping her horrible chatterbox mum in stitches. Josef represents escape from two people she’s come to loathe.

The teenage girl attempts suicide

The narrative cuts back to that teenage girl after her second boyfriend cruelly dumps her. We are intended by now, I think, to realise that the sentimental and sadistic boyfriend was none other than Josef, and I think the distraught girl was a young Irena.

We are told how the teenage girl goes on the school ski trip, one evening walks away from the chalet, as far as she can, swallows a bunch of sleeping pills she’s stolen off her mother, and lies down in the snow to die.

Burying the dead

This narrative breaks off to revive a thought that had been mentioned earlier (and which recurs in Kundera’s later fiction) which is the correct disposal of the dead. When Josef’s wife dies, he fights an almighty battle to stop her family claiming the body and burying it in the family plot. Josef feels she would be abandoned among strangers. (This parallels Chantal’s anxiety in Identity about what happens to the bodies of the dead the instant they’ve gone i.e. they lose all privacy and pored over by pathologists and police and strangers, cut open and humiliated. Which is why she insists on being cremated.)

The suicide survives

She had lain down under a beautiful blue Alpine sky, her head woozily full of images of a beautiful death. She wakes up under a black night sky feeling awful and in fact unable to feel half her body. Evidently she is not dead, and she staggers back to the ski chalet where the doctor diagnoses her with frostbite and says part of her ear will have to be chopped off. Word goes round the other kids and teachers about the girl who tried to kill herself. She is mortified. Now her life divides into two halves – the innocent years under the blue sky of childhood, and the years of knowledge under a black sky.

The implications of human lifespan

There now follow some fascinating passages about the human condition. Nothing impenetrable or difficult, it’s all very accessible. It’s as if he’s made philosophy entertaining. It’s like Heidegger turned into a newspaper editorial.

First idea is a consideration of how much our lifespan – say 80 years – affects meaning. If human beings lived for, say 160 years, then the notion of a Great Return which his book is about, would dissolve into just one of the many peregrinations 180 year-olds would be prone to.

Human memory

Next, Memory. The fact is that human memory retains no more than a millionth, maybe a hundred millionth of our actual lived experiences. If human beings remembered everything they would cease being human and be a different species. One of the things that defines us is the way we forget almost everything.

And why do we remember some things and not others? Because they are part of the complex narratives we tell ourselves about our lives. And these narratives, obviously, vary hugely from person to person.

It’s not just that people remember the same event differently (as Kundera has given us ample examples of throughout his work), but that quite often two people don’t even remember the event at all. Thus Irena powerfully remembers her first meeting with Josef, and remembers him as a symbol or talisman of the single life she left behind when she married her husband soon after. Whereas Josef doesn’t remember her at all.

Kundera evinces both Irena’s experience after he husband died and Josef’s after his wife died: for both of them the shared memories which made up their relationships required constant discussing and sharing. Once the sharing ended, the memories started to decay, worryingly quickly.

Kundera’s discussed some of these issues before but, as I’ve said, they seem to arise more naturally from the subject matter and setting in this book than they do in its immediate predecessors. The result is that it feels more graceful. There are fewer abrupt handbrake turns.

Back to the narrative

Irena goes strolling round Prague, revising the middle class area where she grew up. She walks through woodland to the back of the famous castle. She thinks about her upbringing, the poets and storytellers and the little theatres with their humour – the ‘intangible essence’ of her country.

Josef reflects

He drives out into the country. He reflects on the destiny of the Czechs, a small nation, whose history has been one of fear and domination, yet have refused to bow to their larger neighbours, like the Danes he has settled among.

He and his sister-in-law had bickered about a painting, a painting by a painter friend of his depicting a working class neighbourhood in the flamey colours of the Fauves. Now he realises he doesn’t want it anyway. It would be a splinter of old Prague in his clean, windswept Danish existence. Out of place.

Man cannot know the future because he doesn’t understand the present

This point is made very amusingly though the example of Schoenberg the revolutionary Austrian composer. In the 1920s he announced that his new twelve-tone system would ensure the dominance of German music for a century. Barely ten years later he, a Jew, was forced to flee Nazi Germany, to America. Here he continued to write and developed the fans and acolytes who were to dominate post-war classical music and impose the atonal ‘system’ onto serious music until well into the 1970s.

But where is he now? In Kundera’s view forgotten and ignored (I’m not sure that’s quite true, but his system certainly doesn’t dominate classical music the way it used to).

Anyway, Kundera introduces another level to explain what he means. Imagine two armies meet to determine the fate of the world but unknown to either one carries the plague bacillus which will wipe out the civilisation they’re fighting over.

Same with Schoenberg and his arch-enemy Stravinsky who he spent fifty years slagging off. In the event both were blown away by radio. The advent of radio in the 1920s was the start of the great plague of noise and din and racket which, in Kundera’s view, has ruined music forever. Kundera lets rip with some classic cultural pessimism:

If in the past people would listen to music out of love of music, nowadays it roars everywhere and all the time, ‘regardless of whether we want to hear it’, it roars from loudspeakers, in cars, in restaurants, in elevators, in the streets, in waiting rooms, in gyms, in the earpieces of Walkmans, music rewritten, reorchestrated, abridged, and stretched out, fragments of rock, of jazz, of opera, a flood of everything jumbled together so that we don’t know who composed it (music become noise is anonymous), so that we can’t tell beginning from end (music become noise has no form); sewage-water music in which music is dying. (p.146)

So who cares any more whether Schoenberg or Stravinsky was right. Both have gone down under a tsunami of sewage-water music.

Irena and music

As so often in Kundera, having shared a thought or idea with us for a couple of pages, he then applies it to one of his walking experiments, also known as ‘characters. Thus we eavesdrop on how much Irena hates the way music blares from every outlet, how much she wants to get away from it to a realm of quiet. On one side of her the bedside radio which, even in its speech programmes, contains snippets of sewage music; on the other side Gustaf snoring like a pig. (This trip to Prague has crystallised how much she hates him.)

She is tense because it is the day when she’s made an appointment to meet Josef.

Josef and N

Before he left the country, Josef had been helped by N., a devout communist who stood up for people like him. Josef goes to meet him, his head full of questions about how he felt about collaborating in the oppression of his people, how things changed towards the end, what he feels now. But N.’s house is packed full of his grown-up kids milling around and he and Josef can’t manage to get a conversation started. He laments the capitalist commercialisation he sees all over the country. N. nods his head. ‘National independence has been an illusion for some time, now.’

Josef abandons his plans to engage in Weighty Conversation and, as soon as he does so, experiences a sudden release and sense of liberation. Suddenly he and N. are like two old friends chatting and gossiping about the past. (There is a certain polemical purpose in the notion that Josef the émigré has more in common with a former communist than with his own brother. His brother represents bitterness, and his wife, Josef’s sister-in-law, would string up the old communists if she could. Josef’s relaxed and warm conversation with his old friend shows how irrelevant that witch-hunting mentality is to the situation. Celebrate what we have in the here and now. Not least because ‘they’ – N. nods towards his adult children – have no idea what they’re talking about.)

The memory theme reappears because N. thanks Josef for acting as his alibi to his wife, on an occasion when N. was off with his mistress. Josef has absolutely no memory of this happening and doubts it was him, but acquiesces in the story. Earlier, his brother had reminded him of some boyhood lines he had supposedly uttered, and his sister-in-law reminded him that he used to scandalise the family with his anti-clerical sentiments. Josef remembers none of this, none of it.

Irena and Josef

They meet at his hotel. They chat and get on. She describes how alien she feels in Prague and yet how she has been cold-shouldered in Paris. The French accepted her and Martin as Heroic Exiles. When the wall came down and she could go back, she realised her few friends slowly lost contact with her because she was no longer interesting.

The suicide girl grown into a woman

I was wrong about the suicide teenager being Irena. It’s her best friend from the old days, Milada, who alone of the cackling women at the hen night reception for Irena, makes the effort to talk to her and understand her. At the time Kundera had told us that she had a very particular hairstyle, the hair cut to perfectly frame her face. Now we realise it is to hide the ear she had cut off because of the frostbite. For her, while Josef and Irena get to know each other in the Prague hotel bar, it is another boring day driving out to a suburb, having a beer and a sandwich alone in a bar.

Except that she has learned that he has come back, the teenage boy who rejected her and prompted her suicide attempt and the loss of her ear. Him. Josef.

Irena and Josef

It’s so noisy with sewage-water music in the bar that Josef invites Irena up to his bedroom. He’s reading the Odyssey. They explicitly compare Odysseus’s 20 year exile with Irena’s own. Talk swiftly moves to Odysseus and Penelope’s first night back in bed. Irena describes it then, half drunk, describes it again using coarse sex words. Both are immediately aroused and tumble into bed. Yes. It is a Milan Kundera novel where, no matter how artful, erudite and thought-provoking the ideas and discussion, straightforward heterosexual penetrative sex is never far away.

It was the sound of those rude words in their native Czech. Both have been married to or living with people who don’t speak Czech. The sound of those words in their native tongue, certainly stimulates Irena to ecstasies of sexual abandonment, she wants to do everything, try every position, and then describe out loud her crudest fantasies, voyeurism, exhibitionism (to be honest, in the era of Fifty Shades of Grey, these do not sound like the wildest fantasies).

Gustaf and Irena’s mother

She is a loud bossy vulgar woman who Irena has been trying to escape all her life. She lives in one of the rooms of the big house Gustaf’s company bought after the liberation. He gets back after a heavy lunch with clients. She has put on some dance music and playfully dances round the room. She takes his hand and makes her dance with her. She pulls him over towards the wall-length mirror. She places her hand on his crotch. They continue dancing. She lets her robe fall open so he can see her breasts and pubic triangle. They continue dancing. She slips her hand down his trousers to touch his hardening member.

Irena and Josef

Irena is exhausted and drunk. She bursts into tears. One thing leads to another and suddenly she realises the awful truth – he doesn’t know who she is. He didn’t on the plane, or in their follow-up phone calls, or downstairs in the bar, or now. She stands and demands he tell her her name. He is silent. Oh dear.

Gustaf and Irena’s mother

Gustaf withdraws from Irena’s mother’s quavery wobbly body. In the darkness she intones that he is quite free to make love to her whenever he likes, but under no obligation. Now, throughout the book we’ve been gently reminded that Gustaf is a bit of a mother’s boy, who fled the responsibility of his wife and child. Now, we realise, he has finally arrived home. Irena’s mother offer him precisely the reassurance and mother love he’s always sought. He reaches out to stroke her cellulite-wobbly buttocks.

Irena and Josef

Abruptly drunk tearful Irena collapses on the bed and passes out. She starts snoring. Josef knees beside her naked body and wonders: could he spend his life with her? she is so obviously in love with him? is she the sister-lover he’s been seeking (on and off) throughout the book?

The suicide girl

Alone and sad, she is in her flat, she is a vegetarian because she is terrified by the thought of eating bodies, that we are all bodies, that she is a body. She has a sad snack dinner and looks at herself in the mirror. She lifts up her hair and looks at her damaged ear. She became a scientist and dreams about flying off into space to find a world where people don’t have bodies.

I thought she and Josef would have had some dramatic reunion in which she blamed him for ruining her life (after he, the selfish teenager, dumped her, she made her suicide attempt, then had part of her ear cut off due to frostbite and gangrene, then she was too scared to show herself to men and never married). But it doesn’t happen, and it feels like an opportunity (deliberately) missed. Remember when he wrote:

The life we’ve left behind us has a bad habit of stepping out of the shadows, of bringing complaints against us, of taking us to court. (p.90)

I thought this was a strong hint that the jilted girlfriend was going to step out of the shadows to confront Josef. Shame. It feels a little like coitus interruptus, a little like the flirting with the reader Kundera does in all his books, promising big things which, somehow, don’t quite come off.

Josef leaves

He writes sleeping snoring Irena a brief sincere note, telling her she has the hotel room till noon the next day. Then packs his bags, goes downstairs, tells reception there’s a guest sleeping in the room who’s not to be disturbed, takes a taxi to the airport and catches his flight. The plane flies up through the clouds and into the big empty black empyrean of night dotted with stars.

Credit

Ignorance by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Linda Asher by Harper Collins in 2002 All references are to the 2003 paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2002 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Bismarck: The Iron Chancellor by Volker Ullrich (2008)

Bismarck, a potted biography

Born in 1815, Otto von Bismarck completed university and began the tedious, exam-passing career path of becoming a Prussian civil servant, but rejected it as boring and went back to manage his father’s lands in Pomerania. He gained a reputation as a fast-living, hard-drinking, traditional Prussian Junker (‘minor aristocrat’), who loved hunting, drinking and sounding off about how the world was going to the dogs.

Local politics Because of his status as local landowner, during the later 1830s and early 1840s Bismarck became involved in local administration, local courts and land disputes, then in local parliamentary business, coming to the attention of local conservative politicians, one of whose brothers was a personal adviser to the king of Prussia. Useful connections. Steps up the ladder.

The Vereinigter Landtag In 1847 Bismarck stood in for a member of the Pomeranian provincial parliament, who was ill, and made his first speech on 17 May. He went on to make a mark as an arch conservative, an uncompromising ally of the Crown, and a vehement critic of all liberal ideas.

The 1848 revolution Barely had Bismarck come to the attention of the political classes than the Berlin insurrection broke out in March 1848 which threatened to overthrow Friedrich Wilhelm IV. The king’s advisors wanted him to flee the city and then let the army pound it into submission. The king wisely decided to stay and submitted to ‘shameful’ ordeals such as removing his hat when the victims of the street fighting of March were paraded before the palace. To his courtiers’ astonishment, he then went riding out among his citizenry to talk to them and apologise for the bloodshed. His personal bravery and appearance of compassion won him many converts.

Still stuck on his country estates, at one point Bismarck had considered raising an armed force from the farmers on his lands in Pomerania, to march on Berlin and overthrow the liberal parliament and to ‘liberate’ the king, but was talked out of it. Later in 1848, as the counter-revolution gained momentum, Bismarck set up a counter-revolutionary newspaper, the Neue Preussische Zeitung and also helped to set up a ‘Junker’ parliament of landowners in East Prussia, worried about the radical threat to property.

The counter revolution The liberal revolutionaries had set up a hopefully titled ‘National Parliament’ which, as the king’s forces re-established control, was forced to move from Berlin to Frankfurt and continued sitting and passing decrees, even as power returned to the kings and conservatives. In October 1848 Austrian troops retook Vienna from its rebellious citizens. By November 1848 the counter-revolution was victorious in Berlin, also. The Berlin National Assembly was first moved to Brandenburg and then dissolved. The king granted a new constitution which made a few concessions to liberal views, but kept himself and his army as the ultimate source of power.

MP to the new parliament In 1849 Bismarck was elected to the new Landtag as a prominent advocate of the ultraconservatives. He was then elected onto the ‘Union Parliament’ which sat in Erfurt and was supposed to advise on the constitution of what many hoped would become a federal Germany. Bismarck’s position was always simple and clear: Prussia first. Prussia, its king and power and traditions, must not be subsumed and diluted by absorption into a Greater Germany.

The renewed German Confederation In 1850, after stormy diplomatic exchanges which almost led to war, Prussia acceded to the Austrian demand to set up a new version of the pre-1848 German Bund or Confederation, to be based in Frankfurt. In 1851 Bismarck was appointed Prussian envoy to the Bundestag in Frankfurt – at just 35, a notable achievement over the heads of many older, more qualified candidates.

Prevents customs union with Austria The 1850s saw a sequence of events in which Bismarck emerged as a canny and astute exponent of power politics. The perennial dispute between Austria and Prussia crystallised into Austria’s wish to join a customs union of the north German states. Bismarck helped to exclude Austria, fobbing her off with a subsidiary agreement. Here presence would have diluted the power of  his beloved Prussia.

The Crimean War of 1854-56 showed how much Bismarck had learned and how far he had come from an unquestioning devotion to arch conservatism. Unexpectedly, the war pitched Christian Britain and France in support of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, against Christian Russia, in a bid to stem Russia’s annexation of the Balkans and creeping progress towards the Mediterranean. Arch conservatives, including the King of Prussia, had a lifelong sympathy for the most autocratic crown in Europe (Russia), and for the so-called ‘Holy Alliance’ which in previous decades had bound together the three autocracies of Prussia, Russia and Austria, and so wanted to go to Russia’s support. But Bismarck saw that Prussia’s best course lay in neutrality, which he managed to maintain.

Friendships with France Russia duly lost the Crimean War and was punished in the resulting Treaty of London. The France of Napoleon III emerged as the strongest power on the continent. Bismarck realised that, for the time being, Prussia should ally with France.

The New Era In 1858 Prince Wilhelm became regent for his brother the king of Prussia, who had had a stroke. Wilhelm showed himself much more amenable to liberals and German nationalists than his brother. It was the start of a so-called New Era. Bismarck surprised his right wing allies by showing himself remarkably open to the change. He had become well known for predicting that, sooner or later, Prussia would be forced into conflict with Austria for complete dominance of Germany. If liberals and nationalists contributed to Prussia’s strength and readiness for that battle, all the better. This is Realpolitik, you happily change alliances, friends and enemies and even principles – all in support of one consistent goal.

Diplomatic exile In the new atmosphere, Bismarck’s opponents had him despatched to St Petersburg as Prussian envoy. He was stuck there for three years but although he hated being torn out of domestic politics, he made many useful contacts in Russian circles. Bismarck lobbied hard to be given a high position in Prussia and was recalled in 1862, but Wilhelm disliked his crusty conservatism and despatched him on to Paris.

Appointed Prussian Prime Minister In 1861 the old king died and his brother ascended the throne as King Wilhelm I. In 1862 arguments between the liberal parliament and conservative administration about reforming the Prussian army led to a constitutional crisis. Bismarck was recalled from Paris and single-handedly persuaded King Wilhelm not to abdicate. Impressed by his staunch support, his parliamentary skill and his knowledge of foreign affairs, Wilhelm appointed Bismarck Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary of Prussia.

1863 Bismarck’s administration found itself embroiled in the ongoing arguments about army reform, as well as problems with the national budget, and sank to record unpopularity. Austria tried to renew the German Confederation on terms favourable to it, but Bismarck persuaded King Wilhelm to reject the demands, and counter-demand Prussian parity with Austria, a joint veto on declarations of war and – in a bold coup – the calling of a new National Assembly based on universal manhood suffrage.

The unification of Germany

30 years ago in my History A-Level, I learned that Bismarck is famous as the man who unified Germany via three short tactical wars. These three wars remain central to his achievement.

1. War with Denmark 

A dispute with Denmark about the ownership of the provinces of Schleswig and Holstein in the Jutland peninsula had been rumbling on since the 1830s. A treaty had been signed in London in 1852. In 1863 the new Danish King, Christian IX, broke the terms of the accord by incorporating Schleswig into Denmark. Bismarck solved the problem by co-opting the Austrians to help, then declaring war and invading the provinces, defeating the Danish army at the Dybøl Redoubt on 18 April 1864. This patriotic victory silenced most of his domestic critics, solved the army problem in favour of substantial extra funding, demonstrated Prussia’s military superiority over Austria, and appealed to all liberal nationalists. Suddenly everyone was behind him.

Hostilities with Denmark rumbled on till October when Bismarck achieved complete control of the two provinces, to be shared between Prussia and Austria.

2. War with Austria 

However, this only delayed the final confrontation between Prussia and Austria for dominance of Germany which Bismarck had been predicting, and planning for, for years. Ever since a new map of Europe was drawn up in 1815, after the defeat of Napoleon, German-speaking populations had been divided up into 39 states and free cities, dominated by big Prussia in the north and the enormous Austrian Empire in the south. From Mike Rapport’s great book about the 1848 revolutions, I learned that German nationalists had for some time been fretting about two alternative solutions to the challenge of creating a ‘united’ Germany, namely to include or exclude the German-speaking population of Austria – the so-called ‘Greater’ or ‘Lesser Germany’ positions.

Bismarck cut through the problem by engineering a war with Austria in 1866, which the Prussians decisively won at the battle of Sadowa on 3 July 1866. He had prepared the way by keeping the Russian Czar onside, liaising with his friend Napoleon III of France, and currying favour with liberals by, once again, proposing a new national Parliament.

After the crushing victory at Sadowa hotheads like Wilhelm I wanted to press on and take Vienna. Bismarck demonstrated his grasp of Realpolitik by refusing all such suggestions and engineering a peace treaty which left Austria with all its territory intact, but forced Austria to agree to the dissolution of the old German Confederation and the reorganisation of all Germany north of the river Main under Prussian control.

Thus Prussia annexed Hanover, Hesse, Nassau and the free city of Frankfurt. By making concessions to liberals at home on the budget issue, Bismarck secured widespread support at home as well as establishing the new North German Confederation under Prussian leadership, as the major power in central Europe. Extraordinary canny success.

Bismarck himself drew up the constitution of the new North German Confederation which was designed, at every point, to extend Prussian power. For example the ‘president’ was to be the King of Prussia, who had sole control of the army and power to appoint or dismiss the Chancellor. Bismarck instituted reforms of trade and freedom of movement, unified weights and measures, and published a new criminal code, which laid the basis for a renewed German economy. From a liberal point of view, these were all reforms they’d been calling for for a generation. From Bismarck’s point of view, that may or may not have been true, all he cared about was these reforms self-evidently made Prussia stronger – his undying goal.

However, the various southern states of Germany revolted against Prussian domination, electing liberal and anti-Prussian governments.

3. War with France

What Bismarck needed was war to prompt in the populations and nationalists of the south German states a sense of patriotic Germany unity which he could then exploit to suborn them into his confederation. For the next few years he closely monitored the situation in Europe for an opportunity.

It came when the throne of Spain fell vacant and a young prince from the Hohenzollern dynasty (the same dynasty as the King of Prussia) who happened to be married to a Portuguese princess, was offered the job.

Bismarck orchestrated both the offer and the timing of its release to the press and via ambassadors to the other nations of Europe, perfectly.

Already concerned about German encroachment into Denmark, political and public opinion in France was outraged at this ‘encirclement’ of France by the Hohenzollern monarchy.

But Bismarck cannily provoked the French government to go too far and demand that not only the young prince renounce the offer (reasonable enough) but that King Wilhelm himself renounce the offer, renounce the claim permanently (Prussia would never offer to put one of its royal family on the throne of Spain), and to apologise to France for any insult.

This demand was sent in a telegram to Bismarck while he was staying at the spa town of Ems. Bismarck was gleeful. He carefully doctored the text of the French demand to make it sound even more blunt, rude and threatening than it already was, and then had it widely published and distributed, ensuring outrage among German opinion at these extortionate demands.

Stung by the widespread publication of ‘the Ems telegram’, the french ruler Napoleon III found himself criticised at home for being weak, and let himself be goaded into declaring war on Prussia. The French Chamber of Deputies roared its approval. Patriotic men thronged to the local barracks all across France. Mobs sang the Marseillaise. The people rushed enthusiastically to war, confident that France had the strongest army in Europe.

Bismarck had achieved everything he wanted to. To the Prussian public, to all the south German states and to the world at large he could present himself as the victim of French aggression. A French army penetrated a few miles into German territory but was then halted and pushed back. Prussian forces quickly counter-invaded, surrounded the fortress at Metz and then massacred the army sent to relieve it, at the Battle of Sedan.

Napoleon III had rushed to the front to lead the French army himself, on the model of his glorious uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, but he was no Bonaparte and the French army turned out to be a shambles. Napoleon was himself captured and the Second Empire collapsed. Bismarck had achieved his goal.

However, the French elected a new government and fought on, compelling the Prussians to march on to Paris and subject it to a prolonged siege which dragged into 1871.

The Franco-Prussian War and the rising up of the revolutionary Commune in Paris in 1871, are two long stories in their own right. More important from Bismarck’s point of view, was that the southern German states did indeed a) come in in support of Prussia b) go further and sign up to the German Confederation – Baden and Hesse-Darmstadt in 15 November, Bavaria and Württemburg on 23 November.

This meant that Bismarck could announce the climax of all his ambitions – the declaration of a new German Reich or Empire, with the Prussian King Wilhelm I, as its Kaiser or Emperor.

Symbolically, this grand ceremony didn’t take place on German soil at all but in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles in France, occupied by the Germans for another four months until a final peace treaty was signed with France.

German unification – which so many nationalists and liberals had been hoping for throughout the nineteenth century, was only achieved thanks to the ruthless destruction of France. Germany was forged amid bloodshed and war. This key fact of modern European history has more than symbolic importance. It was to resonate on through the next 80 years of European history…

A map of German unification

This handy maps shows how extremely fragmented Germany was between 1815 and the 1860s. Note how even Prussia itself was splintered, with the sprawling eastern half separated from Westphalia in the west by tiny statelets like Hanover, Brunswick and Anhalt.

Black arrows show the route of Prussian armies a) north into Holstein and Schleswig in 1864, b) south-east into the province of Bohemia (part of the Austrian Empire) to the battle site of Sadowa in 1866, and c) west through the Palatinate and Alsace into France and towards the decisive battlefield of Sedan in 1870.

The unification of Germany 1815-71

The unification of Germany 1815-71

Preserving the balance of power

Given the unstintingly reactionary Prussian beliefs of the young Bismarck and the blunt brutality with which he was prepared to go to war three times to achieve his aims, I’ve always thought the most intriguing and impressive thing about him was the way that, once he had achieved his stated aims, Bismarck stopped war-mongering and had the wisdom to consolidate.

The European balance of power Admittedly this was partly a reaction to the response of the other powers to the arrival of a large unified new power in the centre of Europe. Britain, a recovering France, and autocratic Russia, all reacted with alarm.

From Bismarck’s perspective it was a gift when trouble erupted in the Balkans, namely nationalistic uprisings of Serbs and others against Ottoman Rule, which led to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. THis distracted everyone’s attention away from Germany, and when the peace conference which ended the war was held in Berlin – the Congress of Berlin 1878 – Bismarck was able to present himself as a genially ‘honest broker’ between the various parties, with no vested interests in the area.

However, Russia was left aggrieved when it didn’t get all it wished, namely access to the Dardanelles (and so the Mediterranean) and felt badly rewarded for the policy of benign neutrality which it had adopted during the Franco-Prussian War.

As a result of this resentment, the ‘League of Three Emperors’ (Russia, Prussia, Austria) fell apart and Russia found herself being drawn into alliance with France.

This created the nightmare scenario, for Bismarck, of facing enemies on two fronts, east and west, and so he sought a rapprochement with Austria to the south, cemented in the Dual Alliance of 1879, and expanded to include Italy in 1882.

Thus this final third of Ullrich’s book shows how the seemingly innocent aims of German nationalism, which sounded so reasonable in the 1840s, led inevitably to a situation where Germany became permanently paranoid of being attacked on both its flanks, and led to the creation of the network of alliances which was to be triggered, with disastrous consequences, when Austria invaded little Serbia, in August 1914.

German colonies Initially Bismarck was dead set against Germany acquiring colonies as a distraction from the more important task of unification and consolidation. But he changed his mind.

He was motivated by a conscious desire to create enmity with Britain, who he was afraid would gain too much influence over the German state, seeing as the Kaiser’s heir, the young Crown Prince (Wilhelm II-to-be) had married a daughter of Queen Victoria.

Partly it would bring Germany into friendly collaboration with France in the South Seas and Africa where their colonies bordered each other.

With this new motivation, Germany took part in the ‘Scramble for Africa’ from the 1880s onwards, acquiring Togoland, Cameroon, German East Africa and German South-West Africa, where they proceeded to behave with genocidal brutality. But Bismarck wasn’t all that interested in the details. Europe was always his focus.

Domestic politics From the 1860s to 1890 Bismarck ruled Prussia, then the newly united Germany. It’s a long period and a lot happened, including:

  • A financial and economic depression starting in around 1873. This provoked anger, frustration, and the rise of modern anti-Semitism, the association of Jews in the popular press and among all classes with cosmopolitan capitalists, financiers, with the alleged bloodsuckers who were bleeding germany dry.
  • The southern states so recently joined to Germany were predominantly Catholic and banded together to form a Catholic party in the new Reichstag. The impeccably Protestant Bismarck saw this as a political threat and implemented a sweeping set of laws designed to restrict Catholic involvement in public life. These sweeping anti-Catholic polities became known as the Kulturkampf or Culture War.
  • Bismarck attacked Social Democratic movements by banning newspapers, political meetings and so on – but this policy rebounded. It hardened the resolve of social democrats and socialists, and created an embattled atmosphere in which radical theories like those of Karl Marx flourished.
  • On the other hand, Bismarck sought to undermine the appeal of radical politics by acceding to many of its policies. Between 1881 and 1889 Bismarck oversaw laws introducing sickness and accident insurance, old age and invalidity pensions – giving Germany the most advanced welfare state anywhere in Europe. Once again not because he particularly ‘believed’ in these policies; but because he saw them as an effective way of neutralising his enemies and retaining his grip on power.

For these next twenty or so years, from 1871 to 1890, Bismarck was the dominating figure in German politics, stamping his personality on the era in the so-called ‘Bismarck System’, and projecting it across Europe into the Concert of Powers.

During the 1880s, Bismarck’s policy of maintaining the status quo at any costs (including himself as Chancellor) came to seem more and more outmoded in a world where large-scale migration from the agricultural east to the industrial west was fuelling the runaway success of German heavy industry, leading to the growth of new cities and industrial areas, with the concomitant rise of working class militancy and new political demands. Economic, technological and social changes increasingly called for new policies.

In March 1888 Kaiser Wilhelm I died and Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm succeeded him as Friedrich III. However, he had throat cancer and died after a reign of just 99 days. He was in turn succeeded by his eldest son, who took the throne as Kaiser Wilhelm II – the same Kaiser Bill who ruled Germany during the First World War.

There was no love lost at all between the self-confident young ruler, aged 39, who wanted to change everything and the old Chancellor aged 73, who wanted everything to stay just the same.

The conflict quickly came to a head as Bismarck devised a new law solely designed, in his usual way, to create division among the centrist parties currently in power and keep them weak. The Kaiser refused to begin his new reign with strife and confrontation, and instead expressed a desire to extend the welfare system for the poor.

With typical thoroughness Bismarck worked through all the options available to him, including forming an unlikely alliance with an old bete noire, the leader of the Catholic party. He even, apparently, contemplated some kind of coup in which he usurped the Kaiser. But as his allies deserted him, Bismarck finally realised his time had come and, on 12 March 1890, tendered his resignation to the Kaiser in a letter which, characteristically, blamed the king for forcing him out and made ominous threats about the disasters which must inevitably follow when he had gone.

It was the removal of Bismarck which gave rise to the famous cartoon by Sir John Tenniel (illustrator of the Alice in Wonderland books) first published in the British magazine Punch on 29 March 1890, ‘Dropping the pilot’.

Image result for dropping the pilot

Most educated Germans were grateful that a long period of stagnation was over. Liberals looked forward to an era of reform. But the foreign powers regarded Bismarck most importantly as a man of peace, a lynchpin in the system of European stability, and worried about what would come next.

Bismarck went into disgruntled retirement where he dictated his memoirs in a hodge-podge manner until his death, aged 83 in 1898. He was a crude, blustering, reactionary bully, but cunning, clever and hard-working. By and large, countries get the leaders they deserve.

A liberal summary

Opinions about Bismarck are as divided today as they were at the time. One contemporary critic wrote that:

He made Germany great and Germans small.

Meaning that Bismarck’s policy of dividing and ruling his parliamentary opponents, of allying with particular parties when he needed them and then dropping them when he didn’t; of deliberately undermining any power bases or parties which threatened his own rule – all this conspired to keep German political culture immature, preventing the growth of a diverse and politically mature middle class, the key social element which is the sine qua non of democracy.

Instead, Bismarck acculturated an entire generation to deferring to a Strong Leader. His readiness to muzzle the press, undermine the civil service, ignore parliament, his cultivation of anti-Semitism, his use of foreign wars as a tool for maintaining domestic power, all these set a very bad precedent.

As did the extremist attitude and language he injected into German political culture.

He who is with me is my friend, he who is against me is my enemy – to the point of annihilation.

The violence of his language towards anyone who stood in his way – liberals, social democrats, Catholics, Jews, the French – set a toxic tone to German political culture which was to poison it for the next fifty years.

That Germany would be united sooner or later was probably inevitable. That it was united by such a reactionary, manipulative, authoritarian bully was not necessarily inevitable, and was to have terrible consequences.

Bismarck quotes

An eminent European statesman for such a long period, Bismarck had various quotes attributed to him, including:

Politics is the art of the possible.

Not by speeches and votes of the majority, are the great questions of the time decided – that was the error of 1848 and 1849 – but by iron and blood. (giving rise to the phrase ‘blood and iron’)

The whole of the Balkans is not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.

The best one of all is, alas, unverified:

Sausages are like laws: I enjoy them both, but it is best not to enquire too closely into how either of them are made.


Related links

Related blog posts

Cnut: England’s Viking King by M.K. Lawson (1993)

In all, the scarcity of contemporary material is such that Cnut’s personality and many of his activities will remain forever unknown. (p.79)

This is a challenging book to read. Right from the first page of the introduction Lawson assumes you already know the outline of the historical events leading up to and during the reign of King Cnut of England and Denmark (1016-1035), and instead plunges into a very detailed discussion of the evidence from different sources, not only for the various events covered in the book but for the numerous issues and controversies about the period.

Thus the text overwhelmingly consists of very finely tuned assessments of conflicting sources for the period such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which survives in 5 significantly varying versions), contemporary documents such as Anglo-Saxon poetry (The Battle of Brunanburgh describing Athelstan’s victory of 937, The Battle of Maldon describing a Viking victory in 991), sermons notably by the fierce archbishop of York Wulfstan, writs, charters and legal documents, two letters from Cnut himself, slightly later historians in England (Henry of Huntingdon, John of Worcester, William of Malmesbury) in Germany (Adam of Bremen, Thietmar of Merseberg) in Normandy (William of Jumièges, William of Poitiers) in Denmark (Saxo Grammaticus, Swegen Aggeson), Norse poetry embedded in the much later Icelandic sagas (written down in the mid-1200s) and so on and so on – all garnished with a forest of notes which themselves reference other scholarly writings and discussions about each of these issues and cruxes.

Most histories present you with a fairly straightforward and smooth-flowing narrative, maybe mentioning one or two places where the sources disagree. This book takes you behind the scenes of history, as it were, to show you the jungle of texts, the wreckage of what happened to be written down, what happened to survive the centuries, which the conscientious historian has to wrestle with — almost all of them biased and distorted by their non-historical purposes – hagiographies to praise saints, various versions of the A-S Chronicle slanted to praise the scribe’s monastery or benefactors, the Encomium Emmae written to praise Cnut’s wife Emma and her sons.

We have a reasonable number of charters from the period – documents officially assigning land from the king or rich patrons, generally to a religious foundation – except that, as Lawson points out, many of them are probably forgeries concocted by the said foundation to justify rights to land which were customary or lost in the mists of time. (With characteristic thoroughness, Lawson has an appendix naming every one of the royal charters issued during Cnut’s reign, along with date and location, and a second appendix explaining in detail the format in which writs and charters have survived.)

So the sources not only routinely disagree about the most basic facts – like the year in which a battle took place – they are almost all biased, deliberately omitting major events or exaggerate minor ones, names even major names like Sweyn/Swegen/Sven are routinely garbled, a high percentage of the documents may be faked, and most of the reporting was based on hearsay, often decades sometimes centuries, after the event.

The result of Lawson’s detailed investigations is probably the definitive account of Cnut’s reign, but very unlike a normal history book: instead of a smooth and comprehensible narrative the text is entirely made up of scholarly detective work, of the subtle balancing of sources against each other, weighing their probable veracity or inaccuracy on each point against three or four or five other accounts, which are themselves suspect for reasons Lawson explains exhaustively.

And the conclusion of all this effort is quite dispiriting: Cnut’s reign is one of the worst documented of any king of England:

The inadequacies of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the surviving charters, even when supplemented by such other fragments as the skaldic poetry and the Letters of 1019-20 and 1027, make it impossible to construct a decent chronology of his reign. (p.79)

So this is not a popular history – although it sheds some unexpected lights on the period, I kept being surprised at the way he mentions what seem to be major events very casually, only in passing, as a side effect of his far more intense interest in the trustworthiness of this charter or that chronicle or the Icelandic poem on the matter, and so on. This isn’t a book for the general reader: I assume it is aimed at undergraduate level or above.

Queen Emma and King Cnut present a gold cross to the New Minster, Winchester (from the New Minster Liber Vitae)

Queen Emma and King Cnut present a gold cross to the New Minster, Winchester (from the New Minster Liber Vitae). Note the angel crowning Cnut. Note his hand on his sword. Heavenly and earthly power combined.

Events up to and including the reign of King Cnut the Great

The Saxon kings of Wessex – Alfred the Great (871-899), Edward the Elder (899-924) and Athelstan (924-927), Edgar (943-975) – spent their careers trying to hold repeated waves of invading Danes/Vikings at bay. Despite setbacks, Alfred just about held on then pushed the Danes back and secured the territory of Wessex i.e. the west England, during the 880s. His successors through the first third of the 10th century pushed the Danes out of England, until Athelstan could pronounce himself – and be seen by his contemporaries as – the first King of All England by the 920s.

The reign of Athelstan’s nephew, King Edgar the Peaceful (959-975) is seen as the ‘high noon’ of Anglo-Saxon monarchy. But Edgar died aged only 31, leaving the nation to his son, Aethelred, who was only 11 or 12. Aethelred became known to history as Aethelred the Unready because he was totally unsuited to being a king, combining arbitrary cruelty against the helpless with craven cowardice before the powerful.

During his long chaotic reign (978-1013) the nobles of England were hopelessly divided and a new generation of Vikings made their appearance and ravaged the coastlines of England without pity. Unable to muster a strong army, Aethelred fell back time and again to paying the Vikings off with ever-increasing ransoms – the so-called Danegeld – bleeding the country dry to extract all the goods, silver and coin he could muster in order to fill the Danish ships which sailed home every autumn full of English goods, slaves and treasure.

Among the leaders of the new wave of attackers, which escalated through the 990s, may or may not have been Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark (this is the kind of academic question Lawson goes into in great detail – Lawson refers to Sweyn as Swegen thoughout), but Sweyn/Swegen certainly led an plundering raid in 1003, along with his teenage son, Cnut, and almost ever year for a decade. These temporary raids for plunder escalated until, in 1013, Sweyn embarked on a planned invasion, ravaging across the East of England before seizing London. Aethelred was forced to flee England, taking refuge with his brother-in-law, Duke Richard I of Normandy (Aethelred was married to Duke Richard’s sister, Emma) and Sweyn declared himself King. A surprisingly large number of English nobles were happy to acquiesce in his enthronement.

But then Sweyn died unexpectedly after just a year in power, in 1014. The Danish magnates acclaimed his son, Cnut, their king and ruler, but the English nobles asked Aethelred to return from exile in Normandy, although under strict conditions (which for some historians marks the first recorded pact between an English king and his subjects). Aethelred landed and marched an unusually unified English force against the Danes, catching Cnut unprepared, who decided it was wisest to sail back to Denmark – not least to assert his authority there as Sweyn’s successor to the Danish throne. Aethelred was restored.

But in 1015 Cnut returned with a well-organised force to find Aethelred, as usual, in disarray, with his own eldest son, Edmund Ironside, having rebelled against him.

When Cnut began ravaging across the country in late 1015, Edmund rejoined his father to oppose the Danes, but Aethelred died in April 1016. Cnut then decisively defeated Edmund at the gory Battle of Assundun on 18 October 1016, in which large numbers of English nobles were slaughtered.

Cnut and Edmund made a peace treaty, the latter retaining kingship of Wessex, while Cnut took the rest of England (a carbon copy of the situation under King Alfred 130 years previously) but when Edmund himself died soon afterwards, either of wounds or illness later that year, Cnut declared himself King of All England. Since he was also King of Denmark and part of Norway, historians refer to this as the Anglo-Scandinavian or North Sea Empire.

Cnut ruled England from 1016 until his death in 1035. He married Aethelred’s widow, Emma, a shrewd move to consolidate an alliance with Emma’s brother, Duke Richard II of Normandy, and also to deprive her sons by Aethelred of support for an invasion attempt from Normandy.

When he died, Cnut was succeeded by his son by an English woman, his first wife or mistress Aelfgifu – Harold I or Harold Harefoot – who ruled for five years until his death in 1040. At which point Cnut’s young son by Emma of Normandy, Harthacnut, having needed several years to establish himself as Cnut’s successor in Denmark, arrived in England and peacefully claimed his throne.

However, Harthacnut turned out to be a cruel and tyrannical king, even by the standards of the times, imposing ruinous punishments – for example ordering entire towns to be burned to the ground if they refused to pay taxes – and it was a relief to everyone when he died after only two years’ reign, and was succeeded by Edward, soon to be known as ‘the Confessor’.

It was during Edward’s reign that the earl of Essex, Godwin, and his son Harold Godwinson, asserted their power, along with his brothers becoming the most powerful family in England. Edward failed to have any children, and appears, while in exile in the Norman court, to have given some kind of promise to William Duke of Normandy that he would inherit the English throne. This was the tangled web which led – at his death in 1066 – to the open conflict between Harold Godwinson and Duke William for the throne of England, which climaxed in the Battle of Hastings – and the long, complex history of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England came to an abrupt end.

The combat of Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut the Dane (right) as depicted by the medieval author Matthew Paris

The combat of Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut the Dane (right) as depicted by the medieval author Matthew Paris

Issues

So much for the bare outline of events. In fact the reader of this book has to piece together a lot of this themselves because Lawson’s main interest, as I’ve explained, is much more a textual analysis of surviving sources, than in writing a spuriously smooth narrative. The entire 200-page book is divided into just five chapters and one of them is devoted solely to ‘The Sources’, but in fact the other four are just as scholarly, tentative, hedged around with reservations and qualifications.

But from the welter of notes and debates over the precise sequence of transcription of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, C version, and so on, emerge some rather more comprehensible ideas.

  • Aethelred has a bad reputation for dithering, for not facing up to Danish attacks and for shamefully bleeding the country dry to pay off the invaders: but Lawson points out that the cost of raising levies and arming them might well have been more i.e. Danegeld was the cheapest option. Also, that it’s only in retrospect that we know that they kept coming back for more – at the time, it may have been hoped that a few payments and promises would make them go away for good.
  • I knew that Cnut’s kingship of England created an Anglo-Scandinavian or North Sea Empire. Lawson brings out the implication of this, though which is that, in an age of perpetual warfare of all against all, that meant he had not so much to rule a far-flung empire as continually worry about all the threats on the borders of that empire: i.e. he had to be aware of potential threats from the Scots, the Irish Vikings, the Welsh, the Normans, the Franks, the (German) Holy Roman Emperor, from Norway, Sweden, and from the Slavic peoples east of the Elbe including the Poles. Explains why both his grandfather Gorm the Old and father Sweyn took Slavic consorts, to protect their eastern flank.
  • In 1017 Cnut, settling into his domain, divided England into four parts, keeping Wessex for himself, giving East Anglis to the independent warlord Thirkell the Tall, Mercia to Eadric, and Northumbria to the Norwegian earl Eric of Lade, to reward these strong allies in his invading army and to impose a military government. The comparison with William the Bastard parcelling out England to his followers 50 years later is striking. Unlike William, though, Cnut seems to have embarked on the elimination of powerful native nobles, having Eadred (who had, incidentally, overthrown the father of Aelfgifu, Cnut’s English wife) beheaded, along – in some accounts – with a number of other leading nobles. Combined with the loss of life at Assundun this amounts to a little holocaust of leading figures. Poor England!
  • The Viking Age in England started with the attack on the remote monastery of Lindisfarne in 793 and only ended with the crushing defeat of the invasion force of Harald Hardrada, defeated by the mighty Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Stamford bridge outside York in 1066. 273 long years of seemingly endless raids, ravaging, plundering and enslavement, which climaxed in the 20 year rule of a Danish king. Odd that this is so often overlooked in the long sweep of English history.

Ravaging and destruction

The scale of the ravaging can’t be imagined. The abbey of Tavistock was burned down in 997, Cerne destroyed, St Mary’s church Exeter was burnt down on 1003, the nunnery at Minster-in-Thanet was burnt down. Christ Church Canterbry was burnt down and the archbishop clubbed to death in 1012. Apart from the massacre of Saxon nobles at the Battle of Assundun, Cnut then executed a number of leading nobles along with their followers. The Danes spent 3 months in 1010 burning East Anglia, killing all the men and cattle they could get their hands on. the young Cnut, forced out of England at Aethelstan’s return in 1014, cut off the hands, noses and ears of the hostages the Saxon nobles had given to him. Cnut’s son, Harthacnut, incensed by the murder of two of his tax inspectors in Worcester, ordered his army to destroy as much of the buildings and kill every man they could find in Worcestershire in 1042. When you consider that Aethelstan repeatedly taxed the nation to within an inch of its life, to extract the repeated payments of Danegeld, combined with the ceaseless harrying, raids, plundering and murdering along any part of the coast, this was a prolonged period when the country was on its knees.

No wonder contemporary writers were so bitter, angry and think the world is coming to an end. Brihtferth of Ramsey in his Life of St Oswald, describes the Danes as accursed, and accomplices of Beelzebub. Archbishop Wulfstan’s famous Sermo Lupi (Sermon of the Wolf) paints a searing portrait of a society in complete moral and physical collapse, and the imminent conquest of the country with the reign of the Anti-Christ.

Hic domus incenditur (Here a house is burned, from the Bayeux Tapestry describing the Norman Conquest 1066

Hic domus incenditur (Here a house is burned) from the Bayeux Tapestry describing the Norman Conquest 1066, showing men under orders burning a wooden house from which are fleeing a woman and her son. Could be Vietnam. Could be Syria.

England endures

The astonishing thing, though all this mayhem, is the point Lawson makes and so do Marc Morris and David Carpenter, which is that England didn’t fall into chaos, real chaos. Trade continued; taxes were collected; men were drafted into armies; church rents continued to be administered, charters issued and so on.

In fact all the charters, writs and tax returns which Lawson so scrupulously sifts through indicate the continuation of a large amount of central administration and legal writ. Deeper than the destruction is the underlying fact that England was a very wealthy country with an efficient and thorough administrative system before the Danes invaded – a system created by the Wessex kings Alfred, Athelstan, Edgar. This proved solid and resilient enough to survive thirty years of ravaging by the Danes (986-1016), the complete conquest by Cnut, the brief but intensely destructive activity of his son Harthacnut (1040-42), and then the systematic ravaging of the south-east by William the Bastard after his victory at Hastings (1066), followed by the horrific Harrying of the North to put down rebels in 1070, which left Yorkshire in ruins for a generation. But still it endured.

Conclusions

From Lawson’s conclusion, and from the book as a whole, three things emerged for me:

  1. Cnut was, by the standards of his day, the most successful of all pre-Conquest rulers in Britain‘ (p.196). Not only did he rule all of England with some kind of overlordship over the king of Scotland but he was lord of Denmark and Norway, too; and he married his daughter to the Holy Roman Emperor, creating a blood alliance only Aethelstan among his predecessors had managed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles mention the outlawing and beheading of a small number of really important nobles, but otherwise his rule doesn’t seem to have been marked by the kind of civil wars which blighted his predecessor and would mar the reign of so many of the Plantagenet kings a century later. Above all, he succeeded in what contemporaries considered the number one obligation of a king – he protected the realm from foreign invasion and raids. All this without the imposition of castles everywhere and the wholescale replacement of the English nobility with his own followers, which is of course what William the Bastard did. So whose conquest was more effective in its day, William’s or Cnut’s? Discuss.
  2. Contingency In fact, what Cnut and none of his contemporaries could have anticipated was that he himself would die relatively young (we don’t actually know his birth year, and Lawson – in his usual thorough way explicates several conflicting theories – but 990 is a popular calculation, so he was, perhaps, 45 when he died in 1035) and that all three of his sons – Sweyn (d.1035) and Harold Harefoot (d.1040) by Aelfgifu – and Harthacnut (d.1042) by Emma of Normandy – would be dead within seven years. Had Cnut lived to 60 like the Conqueror, and had his children reigned similar lengths as the Conqueror’s children (William Rufus 13 years, Henry 1 35 years!) i.e. a total of 48 years i.e. until 1083, then in all probability neither Edward the Confessor, nor Harold Godwinson, nor William the Conqueror would ever have ruled – the Norman Conquest would never have happened! But all three of his male children died in quick succession and the kingship of England reverted to the line of Wessex, to the Confessor, whose failure to have any children, let alone a male heir, turned out to be fatal.
  3. The Viking Age Lawson, like other historians says that the Viking Age came to a definitive end with the crushing defeat of Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, by the army of Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. But a section of his conclusion slightly contradicts this. For in 1069 a Danish fleet sailed up the Humber to assist Saxon rebels against the Conqueror; in 1070 this force was joined by Swegen Estrithsson of Denmark, Cnut’s nephew, who was met by people apparently hoping he would conquer the entire country, as his uncle had. In fact William bought Swegen off (just like Aethelred) but another fleet, under Swegen’s son, another Cnut, arrived to support a further rebellion in 1075. They decided against an armed confrontation with William, withdrew and sailed home. But even as late as 1085 William was, apparently, making careful preparations to deal with another invasion Cnut was threatening but in the event never mounted. In other words, it sounds to me as if the Battle of Stamford Bridge didn’t really end the Viking threat, which continued, by Lawson’s own account, to be serious and taken seriously for another 20 years. So surely more as if it slowly petered out rather than abruptly and definitively ended.

Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

The Saga of the Jomsvikings

Classifying sagas

Hundreds of long prose texts were composed in Iceland in the 13th and 14th centuries, the texts we call sagas. Modern scholars bring some order to this profusion by classifying them as:

  • sagas of Icelanders (Íslendinga sögur) – just over 40 texts describing what purport to be the true exploits of ordinary figures from the early settlement of Iceland, the so-called Saga Period, from 870 to just after the Christianisation in 1000 – this is the category which includes all the famous sagas ie Njal, Grettir, Laxdaela and so on
  • short tales of Icelanders (Íslendingaþættir) – around 66 items, often very short, often abstracted from the longer kings’ sagas
  • kings’ sagas (Konungasögur) – lives of Scandinavian kings, most notably the famous Heimskringla
  • contemporary sagas (Samtíðarsögur) – contemporary to their 13th century time of composition, written soon after the events they describe, most preserved in the compilation Sturlunga saga
  • legendary sagas (Fornaldarsögur) – dealing with deep myths and legends of the Northern peoples, most notably the Völsunga saga
  • chivalric sagas (Riddarasögur) – frequently copied from southern, mostly French chansons de geste
  • saga of the Greenlanders (Grænlendingasögur)
  • saints’ sagas (Heilagra manna sögur)
  • bishops’ sagas (Biskupa sögur)

Jómsvíkinga saga is told in the flat, objective style of the sagas of Icelanders but deals with chieftains and kings and high politics, so is more of a king’s saga.

Summary

Jomsborg is founded on the north German coast by the legendary Danish hero, Pálni-Tóki. It is a fraternity of vikings who raid around the Baltic. After Pálni-Tóki’s death the new leader, Sigvaldi, kidnaps King Svein of Denmark and tricks him into marrying Gunnhild, daughter of the Wendish king Búrisleif. Svein’s revenge is to invite the vikings to a feast at which he gets them drunk and encourages them to vow to conquer Norway and its ruler Earl Hákon Sigfurdsson. At the resulting Battle of Hjörungavágr the Jomsvikings are soundly beaten and, in a famous scene, 70 of them are lined up and executed until Eirik, Hákon’s son, is moved by their bravery to spare them.

Accretions

The Battle of Hjörungavágr is the core of the story and yet it only occurs in the last ten or so chapters of the 38-chapter long text. Over the centuries the oral tradition and the scribes (endless controversy about how much of each) have added on 20 or more chapters of build-up stretching back some 150 years before the main event, introducing, for example, the series of prophetic dreams (rather garbled and ineffective in the event, as they don’t actually foretell many key events). As with all the sagas events are told in the same flat style with little or no explanation which means you have to reread the text since, only when you’ve got to the end, do you find out what it’s about, which bits are important and which bits are fun and fanciful but unnecessary to the ‘plot’.

History and non-history

As the scholar N.F. Blake writes in his thorough and academic introduction to this 1962 edition, despite the highly detailed nature of the text which appears to be all about kings and battles, ‘The Jómsvíkinga Saga is not a historical text and has no value as a historical document. The main claim that the saga has to our attention is its literary excellence.’

Maybe so, but the saga is densely packed thoughout with real historical personages and, although their relations may be cast in fairy tale terms of three dreams and three visits and trick oaths and miraculous storms, nonetheless a lot of it is meaningless unless you have a good grasp of the power relations between the various kings and earls of Norway and Denmark – a challenging feat since the sources are meagre and even the best modern scholarship is dismayingly speculative about much of this period.

However, the overall affect is similar to other substantial sagas in that the mere effort involved in trying to follow the story leads you to become emotionally attached to some of the protagonists (for example, the venerable Bjorn the Welshman who is quietly effective throughout), even when their actions are repellent, even when their characters are almost non-existent – so that by the time the tragic end arrives the reader is moved partly out of sheer exhaustion at having stuck with the text till the bitter end.

Versions

Apparently the saga exists in five versions which are quite different in detail. This translation is from version H. There are also a number of other texts retailing the adventures of the Jomsvikings, which give completely different versions of key facts, for example about who founded them and where Jomsborg even was. This saga doesn’t give the definitive account, the reverse: reading this saga would be only the beginning of a journey towards a full understanding of the subject…

Detailed synposis

1 – In Denmark ruled King Gorm the Childless. His friend Earl Arnfinn holds a fiefdom in north Germany from Charlemagne (d.814). The earl has an incestuous relationship with his sister who bears a son. Slaves are told to expose it but, as always in this fable, leave it where it will be found by King Gorm and his hirdmen hunting. The babe is found in rich fabric knotted into a tree, so Gorm calls him Knut (knot) and adopts him and leaves him his kingdom. Knut himself has a son he names Gorm who will later be known as Gorm the Mighty.
2 – In Holstein rules Earl Klakk-Harald. His daughter Þyri has no equal in beauty. King Gorm comes with his army seeking her hand, but Harald wisely invites him to a feast at which Þyri herself says he must come again with gifts, build a house where none has stood, and sleep three nights in winter, having three dreams. Gorm goes away, builds the house, sleeps there on three consecutive nights and has dreams and tells Þyri who says she can marry him. Big wedding feast.
3 – Gorm tells his dreams: 1. He is looking out over his kingdom, the sea has receded to dry up. He sees three white oxen come out of the sea, eat all the grass, and return to the sea. 2. Three red oxen with large horns come up from the sea, strip all the grass, and return to the sea. 3. Three enormous black oxen come from the sea, eat all the grass, and return. Then a loud crash as the sea rushes back to where it had been. Þyri interprets: three white oxen are three heavy winters covering the land with snow. Three red oxen mean three winters with little snow but not good. The three black oxen mean a dire famine. The crash of the sea means civil war between great men close to Gorm. The queen pledges to prepare for the famine and when it comes there is enough food to feed all, whence she becomes known as the wisest woman alive and the Glory of Denmark.
4 – King Gorm invites Earl Harald to visit him at Christmas but the earl and men see a tree covered with blossom and decide it is a bad omen and turn back (symbolising the change from heathenism to Christianity in Denmark). Next year another Christmas invite but when they board a ship the earl and his men hear whelps barking in their mothers’ wombs (the rebellion of Svein against his father). Next year another invitation but this time the earl and his men see waves crashing and the sea turning red (the conflict between Knut and Harald – this never happens as Knut is killed by a Saxon arrow – see below). The king is all for attacking and ravaging Holstein but his wife calms him and invites her father who explains what kept him home three times and interprets the events as warning that boys yet unborn will cause great strife.
5 – Earl Harald bestows his land on  his foster-son Knut and goes on pilgrimage never to return. Aethelstan is king in England (925-39). The Danish army led by Gorm’s sons Knut and Harald invades and ravages Northumberland. Aethelstan gathers an army and defeats the Danes near Scarborough. One day the men were swimming by their ships when English men attack with bows, mortally wounding Knut. The English rally and the Danes are decisively expelled. They return to tell King Gorm who dies of heartbreak and is buried at Jelling (930? 940?). Harald Gormsson is elected king who will become known as King Harald Bluetooth (958-986).
6 – At this time Norway is ruled by Harald Greycloak (960-970?), the son of Eirik Bloodaxe, and his mother, Eirik’s wife Gunnhild, who had expelled Earl Hakon Sigurdarson, who takes 10 ships and to a Viking life. During winter King Harald Gormsson/Bluetooth and Earl Hákon plot treachery against King Harald Greycloak of Norway and in the spring he is killed (970) by dead Knut’s son Gull-Harald (who Hákon then string up on a gallows for his trouble). Then the Holy Roman Emperor Otto comes on an expedition (974), gets Olaf Tryggvasson to help him and they force King Harald Bluetooth and Earl Hákon to become Christians.
7 – There was a man named Tóki who lived in Fyn in Denmark. He has three sons, the illegitimate Fjolnir (sneak), legitimate Áki (hero) and Pálnir (father of the legendary Pálni-Tóki). When Tóki  dies the two legitimate sons divide his property, offering Fjolnir a third of the chattels but not property. Angered he goes off to serve King Harald, rising to become his counsellor. Áki Tókason becomes the most successful viking raider in the land but Fjolnir feeds King Harald a steady diet and criticism and paranoia. When they learn Áki is at a feast in Gotland the king sends 10 ships and 600 men who successfully kill all Áki’s 120 men. Fjolnir has had his revenge.
8 – When Áki’s brother learns this he takes to his bed in despair since he cannot carry out the required revenge against so powerful a man as the king. His foster-brother Sigurdr advises asking the hand in marriage of Ingibjorg, daughter of Earl Ottar of Götland. He says yes and travels to Fyn for the grand wedding feast. That night in their wedding chamber Ingibjorg has a dream she is weaving on a loom the threads of which are weighted with human heads. One falls down and it is the head of King Harald Gormsson/Bluetooth. Good sign.
9 – Pálnir and Ingibjorg have a son Pálni-Tóki who grows up big and strong. (Apparently Pálni-Tóki is a legendary figure, comparable to William Tell and other heroes.) When his father dies he goes a-viking every summer. Wales is ruled by Stefnir who has a daughter Álof. Pálni-Tóki plans to raid there but Stefnir and his adviser Bjorn the Welshman quickly send emissaries inviting him to a feast and to be friends. Not only does Pálni-Tóki attend but he proposes to Stefnir’s daughter, Álof. Stefnir makes Pálni-Tóki an earl and gives him half of Wales. After a year Pálni-Tóki says he wants to return to Denmark, so leaves his half the kingdom in control of Bjorn the Welshman.
10 – King Harald Bluetooth progresses round his land. He stays with Pálni-Tóki. As a result of his carousing a servant woman, Saum-Aesa, falls pregnant and bears a son (960). When Pálni-Tóki learns it is by the king he adopts the child and calls it Sveinn. (He will grow up to be the Sven Forkbeard who rebels against his father and conquers England in 1013.)  Next time the king is visiting they present him the three year-old boy but the king is angry and doesn’t want to know. Pálni-Tóki vows to bring him up royally.
11 – When he is 15 Pálni-Tóki advises him to go ask for ships from his father so he can go raiding. He harries Denmark and the farmers complain. Next spring he asks for more ships and harries fiercely all summer. When he meets his father he threatens him and Harald buys him off with more ships. Pálni-Tóki congratulates him: he is becoming strong and threatening. Pálni-Tóki goes to check his lands in Wales.
12 – Svein harries, burning and looting. Finally King Harald sets off with 50 ships to confront him.  The fleets meet off Bornholm. Day-long battle is inconclusive and the ships anchor. Harald goes ashore. Pálni-Tóki arrives back from Wales with 24 ships. Harald goes ashore with a handful of men and makes a fire. Pálni-Tóki shoots him dead with a golden arrow and sneaks away. Fjolnir keeps the arrow and Harald’s retainers agree to lie that the king fell in battle. Next day the naval fight resumes; Svein and Pálni-Tóki’s forces break through Harald’s blockade and sink more ships at which point everyone learns that Harald is dead. Svein and Pálni-Tóki give his followers the choice between fighting on or pledging their allegiance to Sveinn. They choose the latter and Sveinn progresses to an Assembly at which he is voted new king of Denmark.
13 – Svein is now king (986-1014). He invites Pálni-Tóki to a feast but three times (as in all good folk tales) he refuses, claiming he has to manage his affairs in Wales. Finally, under threats from Svein, Pálni-Tóki arrives with three ships and 120 men. Big feast. Fjolnir (the same sneak who persuaded King Harald to kill his uncle Aki) whispers to the king the story of Pálni-Tóki killing his father.
14 – Fjolnir gives a page the golden arrow and tells him to pass it round the room till someone claims it. Pálni-Tóki claims it and openly declares he shot and killed Svein’s father. Svein (Pálni-Tóki’s foster-son, after all) tells everyone to seize and kill Pálni-Tóki. Everyone leaps to their feet. Pálni-Tóki chops his bad uncle Fjolnir in two (cheers). But Pálni-Tóki and Bjorn the Welshman escape, though Bjorn goes back to rescue a man they’d left behind.
15 – The next summer Pálni-Tóki’s wife dies. He is restless in Wales, so leaves it to Bjorn the Welshman to manage and goes a-viking the coasts of Scotland and Ireland for three years, gaining great loot and then sets sail east to Wendland. The king of the Wends, Búrisleif, is understandably worried and offers Pálni-Tóki a base at a place named Jóm. Pálni-Tóki builds a castle there with a harbour that can hold 360 longships and has iron doors and catapults. (This all sounds fantasy from a long time later.) He calls it Jómsborg.
16 – Laws of the Jomsvikings: age 18-50; no refusing to fight; avenge each as a brother; never speak a word of fear; all valuable goods seized to be taken to the banner(?); no starting fights; news to be mentioned only to Pálni-Tóki; no women in the city; no-one absent for more than three days; if blood feuds exist between brothers Pálni-Tóki makes final agreement. They went harrying every summer. They were known as the Jomsvikings.
17 – A number of new families are introduced. Pálni-Tóki’s son is Áki, living back on Fyn in Denmark. Áki marries Thorgunn, daughter of Véseti, they have a son named Vagn who is tough and hard to handle.
18 – Sigvaldi and Thorkell, sons of Strut-Harald, ask his permission to go join the Jomsvikings and sail with 120 men via Bornholm where they land and raid farms owned by Véseti, then sail on to Joms. Pálni-Tóki stands on the battlements over the harbour and asks them their provenance. He knows their kin and half the men are accepted, half rejected.
19 – Meanwhile Véseti complains to King Svein about his farms being raided. Sveinn summons Earl Strutt-Harald who says his son’s actions are no responsibility of his. Véseti with 240 men plunders Harald’s farms, who complains to Sveinn but Sveinn says Harald wanted to act alone: so Harald goes raids three of Véseti’s farms.
20 – Sveinn calls a great assembly at which all parties arrive with ships and short-tempered men and it looks like a full-scale civil war might erupt, except Svein  declares a just settlement, Búi will return Harald’s cloak and riches (though not the chests of gold he insists on keeping) and awards Strut-Harald’s daughter to Véseti’s son Sigurd-kapa. All sides as reconciled.
21 – Then Búi and his brother Sigurd-kapa decide they want to go join the Jomsvikings. They sail there and are also asked questions by Pálni-Tóki on the tower. Sigvaldi and Thorkell want to be assured the feud between the families is settled.
22 – Vagn is such an unruly child that by the age of nine he has killed three men. Age 12 he asks Aki for a ship and sails to Jom. Long dialogue with Pálni-Tóki on the tower, involving Búi and Sigvaldi. Nobody wants to admit Vagn. Pálni-Tóki offers him rule in Wales, he says no. Then he challenges Sigvaldi to come out with two ships and fight it out.
23 – Sigvaldi and Vagn’s ships fight, first with hails of stones, then with swords. Sigvaldi is forced to retreat and loses thirty men. Pálni-Tóki is watching, stops the fighting and admits Vagn to the crew, even though he is only 12. He turns out a mighty warrior.
24 – Pálni-Tóki dies. Before passing he consults with King Búrisleif who gave them Jom about who should replace him. They agree Sigvaldi who is delighted. Vagn is given half of Wales to rule and goes there. But under Sigvaldi the Jomsvikings’ discipline deteriorates.
25 – King Búrisleif has three daughters. Sigvaldi asks for the hand of the Astrid. The King agrees but Astrid is not keen and says she’ll only do it on condition that Sigvald manages to liberate their country from the tribute they have to pay Denmark or, alternatively, brings King Svein there himself. They confirm the arrangement with oaths. Sigvald sails with three ships and 360 men to Sjaellund ie his home territory, learning that King Svein is holding a big feast nearby. Sigvald tells Sveinn he is dying and needs to tell him something important. King Svein comes onboard Sigvald’s ship at which Sigvald grips him and orders his men to raise anchor and row off hurriedly. He takes the king to Jomsborg where the vikings swear loyalty to him. Then Sigvald says he has pledged him (Svein) to King Búrisleif’s other daughter Gunnhild who will only accept him if he cancels the tribute which King Búrisleif has to pay him. Svein agrees and there is a mighty wedding feast. The wives wear veils until the next day when the king can see their faces and realises Sigvald was lying when he said Gunnhild was the most beautiful. Still, he sails back to Denmark with his new bride, thirty ships and fine gifts and Sigvald sails to Jom with his new wife.
26 – Earl Strut-Harald, father of Sigvald and Thorkell, dies. King Svein says the brothers should return for the funeral feast. People warn him against it but the brothers return to Sjaelland with 180 ships. Big feast, lots of drinking: Svein gets the vikings drunk then suggests they make oaths. He swears to defeat Aethelred and take England within three years (he does so in 1014). Sigvald swears that he will drive Earl Hákon out of Norway or die in the attempt. Thorkell the Tall vows to follow his brother. Búi vows to follow Sigvald. Sigurd-kapa vows to follow his brother. Vagn vows to follow his kinsmen, and then to go to bed with Ingibjorg, daughter of Thorkell leira. Bjorn the Welshman (surely getting on a bit by now) vows to follow Vagn. In the morning the sober vikings can’t remember their vows but his wife, Astrid, reminds Sigvald, and promises to help him make plans.

[In a footnote, N.F. Blake says that a man making an oath at a feast gets up from his seat and goes and puts one foot on a stone in the feast hall.]

Sweyn and the Jomsvikings at the funeral ale of his father Harald Bluetooth by Lorenz Frølich, 1886 (Wikimedia Commons)

Sweyn and the Jomsvikings at the funeral ale of his father Harald Bluetooth by Lorenz Frølich, 1886 (Wikimedia Commons)

27 – Next day King Svein reminds the now-sober Sigvald of his vow. They squabble about how many ships the king will give him, and agree to set off soon. Astrid promises help to her husband, and Tóva gives her husband Sigurd some fighting men. The Jomsvikings depart.
28 – The Jomsvikings sail to the Vik and attack Tønsborg in Norway, murdering and burning. It is managed by Geirmund the White who flees to an outhouse with retainers then, when attacked, leaps out a window and has his arm chopped off by Vagn Akisson, but nonetheless flees to the woods and makes his way north to Earl Hakon who he tells of the attack. When the earl doesn’t believe him, he shows his stump.
29 – Hákon sends round the war arrow and musters troops. He raises his sons Svein and Eirik. The fleet of 360 ships assembles at a creek called Hjörungavágr. The Jomsvikins sail north plundering. The incident of Vagn and Ulf ie Vagn goes ashore on an island and finds a farmer tending three cows and 12 goats and asks him if he’s seen the Norwegian forces and he says he’s seen the king in one boat and the Joms force him to direct them and when he thinks they’re going t orealise he was lying he dives overboard but Vagn kills him with one spear throw.
30 – Detailed list of the men lined up on either side. For some reason space is devoted to one of Hákon’s skalds, Skjald-meyjar-Einarr, who recites a poem saying he’s going to leave. The earl gives him an elaborate set of magic scales and he stays. (This poet is mentioned in Egils saga as one of Hakon’s court poets and is also unhappy with his boss in that account.) And two verses from another Icelander named Vígfúss.
31 – The Battle of Hjörungavágr – detailed description of the battle lineup.
32 – Earl Hakon convenes with his sons and agree it looks like they’re losing. He goes ashore at Prímsign and prays to the heathen godesses, Thorgerd Holgabrudr and Irpa. He offers sacrifices which are rejected until he offers his seven-year-old son Erling who is then killed.
33 – He rallies his troops to rejoin the fray. As the day proceeds it clouds over until completely dark when lightning, thunder and hailstones break out. Many had taken off their clothes earlier in the day because of the heat and now begin to freeze. Whatever the Jomsvikings threw rebounded back on them plus the hail. The vikings with second sight see that a witch is throwing arrows at them. Hákon calls on his pagan goddess Thorgerd once again and the hailstorm is renewed, and those with second sight now see two witches fighting agains them. Sigvaldi concedes defeat. They didn’t vow to fight witches. Thorkell midlang leaps aboard Búi’s ship and hits him in the face with an axe, slips and Búi chops him in two; then Búi seizes his famous chests of gold (see chapter 20) and commands his men to abandon ship. Vagn, disgusted with Sigvald for abandoning his oath, makes an insulting poem about it then flings a spear at him which pins his steersman to the gunwale. Once Sigvald is gone, Thorkell the Tall, Sigurd-kapa and the rest all flee.
34 – Only Vagn fights on though many of his men are killed. When night falls the Norwegian earls take the oars from Vagn’s ship, anchor and weigh the hailstones sent by the pagan godesses Thorgerd and Irpa. Vagn’s men manage to float on the mast & sail to nearby skerries but many are wounded, it is bitter cold, and ten men die.
35 – At first light a viking arrow kills Gudbrand, kinsman of the earl. They search the abandoned viking ships and it came from Hávard the hewer whose feet have been cut off. They kill him. Earl Eirik asks Thorleif skuma why he looks so rough and Thorleif replies he seems to have been wounded when he attacked Vagn. Then he dies. This exchange seems to be there solely to justify what is, presumably, an old piece of skaldic verse attributed to Einarr skalagramm.
36 – Execution of the Jomsvikings The Norwegians see Vagn’s men on the skerry, row out and being them back prisoner, tie all 70 of them with ropes. Thorkel leira is appointed to execute them and, one by one, they ask whether they are afraid to die. They say no and one by one are beheaded, each one being asked the question and giving some kind of witty or ironic reply. One wants to be struck in the face so as to see death. Another is disappointed he won’t get to have sex with the earl’s wife, and so on.
37 – The famous story of the viking who requests a thrall to hold his hair up as he’s executed and who, as the blow falls, jerks his head down so that the thrall’s arms are chopped off above the wrist, and who then jokes, ‘Whose are these hands in my hair?’ He is killed and Earl Hakon orders all the others executed without delay. When they come to Vagn he replies he will only die content if he fulfils his vow: what was that? To kill Thorkel leira and lie with his daughter Ingibjorg without his consent. Thorkel is so furious he lunges at Vagn; Bjorn the Welshman pushes him over so the blow misses, Thorkel stumbles and the sword cuts through Vagn’s rope, freeing him, so that he grabs the sword and kills Thorkel with one blow. Hakon orders him killed on the spot but Earl Eirik overrules him on this and, in general, requests the rest of the Jomsviking be spared. Eirik asks old white-haired Bjorn the Welshman if he’s the brave man who returned to rescue a man from the hall (in chapter 14). When he says yes Eirik says will you accept your life from me and Bjorn says only if Vagn and all the others are spared. The Jomsvikings’ bravery in face of death and legendary solidarity are confirmed.

38 – Aftermath Earl Eirik grants Vagn his freedom and his wish, namely to marry Ingobjorg. He returns to Denmark, to his estates at Fyn, and lives to old age and many famous men are descended from him. Bjorn returns to rule Wales with a mighty reputation. Sigvaldi returns to his estates in Sjaelland and his wife Astrid. He rules wisely, as do the others ie Thorkell the Tall, Sigurd-kapa etc. But Búi, who had leapt overboard with no hands, is said to have turned into a serpent and ever afterwards guarded his gold. Earl Hákon gains great fame from his victory but doesn’t live much longer. Christian Olaf Trygvasson arrives in Norway and the fiercely pagan Hákon, on the run, is murdered by his own thrall while hiding in a pigsty (995). Olaf rules and converts all of Norway to Christianity.

‘That is the end of the story of the Jomsvikings.’

Related links

The Jomsvikings in a naval battle by Nils Bergslien, 1900 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Jomsvikings in a naval battle by Nils Bergslien, 1900 (Wikimedia Commons)

Other sagas

The Hammer and the Cross by Robert Ferguson (2009)

Top Viking facts

  • Holy War There are numerous theories about what started the ‘Viking Age’. Bad weather. Poor soil. Population explosion. Development of sailing technology. Ferguson goes with the theory that Norse violence was a holy war, a hyperviolent response to Charlemagne’s bloody campaign to convert the heathen Saxons to Christianity in the 770s which climaxed in the massacre at Verden in 782. Saxon survivors fled north into pagan Denmark, taking tales of atrocities and it was only a few years later, in 793, that the first, ferocious assault was made on the coast of Britain, at the monastery of Lindisfarne, an attack which inaugurated 250 years of blood-soaked raiding, killing and enslaving. The other theories may be true as well – there may be multiple causes – but only the Holy War theory explains the excessiveness of the violence which is always associated with the Norsemen.
  • Slavery Who they didn’t torture and kill, the Vikings enslaved. Slavery was one of the most widespread and lucrative commodities of this era (800-1050) across Europe. Dublin was a major centre of the slave trade. Rouen became a thriving centre of the trade till past the time of William the Conqueror, who was petitioned by clerics to curtail the trade.
  • Slav slaves The English word slave ultimately stems from ‘Slav’ because throughout the Viking period so many Slavs were traded as slaves. Russian nationalists do not like this fact. Online etymological dictionary
  • The Great Heathen Army From the British perspective, there is a lull between the famous attack on Lindisfarne in 793, followed it’s true by persistent opportunistic raids – but it’s with the first army wintering on Sheppey in 835 that the threat becomes sustained and builds to the arrival, or invasion, of the Great Heathen Army in 865. They don’t leave and go on to establish a ‘kingdom’ across the east and north of England which endures over 100 years.
  • Russia was founded by Vikings Debate rages to this day about the origins of the ‘Rus’ who give Russia its name, basically the West taking the evidence at face value that it was founded by the Rus, meaning men who row, who were Vikings from Sweden. Russian nationalists take the ‘anti-Norman’ view that native Slavs were too culturally superior to be conquered by barbarians. The debate is summarised in this Wikipedia article. Ferguson goes with the Western view that Viking raiders/traders, predominantly from Sweden, explored the river systems which drain into the Baltic and realised, with a small amount of portage (carrying the boats), they could cross over into the river systems which flow south to the Black Sea and Constantinople. Rhos or Rus traders were reported by Greeks from Byzantium, by Arabs, in western chronicles and in the earliest Russian annals – they were Heathen, raided with savage violence, were strong and blonde like the other Scandinavians, held ship-based funerals like Vikings, and their most profitable commodity was slaves from the shores of the rivers they navigated which they sold to the Greeks. Kiev became the great trading centre half-way along the route, centuries before Moscow was founded, which is why Kiev and the Ukraine still hold such a place in Russian nationalist ideology.
  • Ireland’s towns were founded by Vikings The first attack on England was at Lindisfarne in 793. In 795 Vikings attacked and burned Rathlin island monastery. After a generation of opportunist raiding, just as in England, in the 830s and 840s the Vikings stopped disappearing after a raid and began to winter in Ireland and penetrate further inland. They established coastal settlements at Dublin, Waterford, Wicklow, Cork and Limerick. Dublin became a centre of the Viking slave trade.
  • Vikings had tattoos ‘Ibn Rustah also tells us that the Rus were covered to their fingertips in tattoos depicting trees, figures and other designs. This is of a piece with what Alcuin and that other anonymous Anglo-Saxon commentator noted concerning the personal vanity of the Heathens, especially their fashion for “blinded eyes”, which may have been a form of eye shadow. An Arab source leaves no doubt that eye make-up was common among the Rus: “once applied it never fades, and the beauty of both men and women is increased.” Tattooing was banned in 787 by Pope Hadrian because of its associations with Heathendom…’ (page 257) which sheds light on the general widespread of tattoos until very recently.
  • Throwing stones the sagas tell ‘of ships that return to shore to pick up fresh supplies of stones, the stone for throwing being the weapon of choice for the average foot-soldier or sailor throughout most of the Viking Age.’ (Page 214)
  • Starboard comes from the Norse for ‘steer board’, which was on the right-hand side of the longboat allowing it to be folded up to the side when navigating shallow water, unlike a rudder fixed to the stern.

Top Viking words

  • the Old Norse personal pronouns they, them and  replaced Old English hie, him and hiera
  • many words with an initial sk sound like sky, skill and skin
  • everyday words such as anger, husband, wing, thrive, egg, bread and die
  • Gil denoting a ravine or steep narrow valley with a stream eg Long Gill
  • by places where the Vikings settled first eg Selby or Whitby, some 600 such places in England. The -by has passed into English as ‘by-law’ meaning the local law of the town or villages
  • -thorpe eg secondary settlements on the margins or on poor lands. There are 155 place names ending in -thorpe in Yorkshire.

Top Viking characters

  • Ragnar Hairy-Breeches legendary figure whose campaign of violence comes to an end when he is thrown in a snakepit by Aella of Northumbria, which triggers the arrival of the Great Heathen Army in 865
  • Ivar the Boneless (d.873?) a son of Ragnar Lodbrok/Hairy-Breeches, Swedish Viking leader who ruled part of modern Sweden and Norway – one of the leaders of the Great Heathen Army which invaded East Anglia in 865. Credited with the murder of king Edmund in 869, who quickly became revered as a Christian martyr.
  • Halfdan the Black (810-60) of the house of Yngling, king of Vestfold, a portion of Norway
  • Harald Finehair (850-932) son of the above, first king of a unified Norway
  • Erik Bloodaxe (885-954) the oldest of Harald Finehair’s sons, got his name for killing two of his own brothers, came a refugee to England where he established himself as king of York but was shortly driven out, and assassinated in flight, 954.
  • Ganger Rolf (846-931) also known as Rollo, Rollon, Robert, Rodulf, Ruinus, Rosso, Rotlo and Hrolf, Ganger Rolf or Rolf the Walker, conqueror of the area of north-west France which becomes known as Normandy, and so ancestor of the William who conquers England in 1066.
  • Erik the Red
  • Harald Bluetooth (935-85) king of Denmark and Sweden, converted to Christianity and erected the Jelling stones.
  • Sweyn Forkbeard (?-1014) son of Harald Bluetooth, he likely deposed his father who died wretchedly on the run. Sweyn or Sven went on to conquer England, becoming first of the Danish kings of England.
Vikings

Vikings

Related links

Sagas

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