The life of Julius Caesar by Suetonius (120 AD)

Suetonius

Not much is known about Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, generally referred to as Suetonius. He was born around 70 AD, probably in a town in modern-day Algeria. He may have taught literature for a while, he seems to have practiced the law. He is recorded as serving on the staff of Pliny the Younger when the latter was governor of Bithynia in north Turkey in 110 to 112 AD. Subsequently he served on the staff of emperors, being in charge of the emperor’s libraries under Trajan and then managing the emperor Hadrian’s correspondence. Pliny describes him as a quiet and studious man devoted to his writing. He wrote The Lives of Illustrious Men, 60 or so biographies of poets, grammarians, orators and historians, almost all of which has been lost (except for short lives of Terence, Virgil and Horace).

The Lives of the Caesars, by contrast, has survived almost in its entirety (it is thought that only some of the opening sections of the first life, Caesar, are missing). As it says on the tin, The Lives of the Caesars includes biographies of the first 12 Roman emperors, being:

  • Julius Caesar
  • Augustus (ruled 31 BC to 14 AD)
  • Tiberius (14 to 37 AD)
  • Gaius (Caligula) (37 to 41)
  • Claudius (41 to 54)
  • Nero (54 to 68)
  • Galba (68 to 69)
  • Otho (69)
  • Vitellius (69)
  • Vespasian (69 to 79)
  • Titus (79 to 81)
  • Domitian (81 to 96)

(It may be worth pointing out that Nero’s suicide in 68 led to a period of anarchy in which a succession of generals seized power. Three of them ruled for only a few months each –Galba from June 68 to January 69; Otho from January to April 69; and Vitellius from April to December 69 – before Vespasian seized power and stabilised the situation, ruling from 69 to 79. Which is why 69 came to be called The Year of Four Emperors.)

Suetonius realised that the genre of biography needed to strike out in a different direction from history, not least because of the overpowering example of Publius Cornelius Tacitus, whose Annals and Histories describe the reigns of the emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and the Year of the Four Emperors. (Taken together, Suetonius and Tacitus are our only major sources for this critical, formative period in the history of the western world.

So Suetonius departed from the strictly chronological approach of the historians, and of his younger contemporary, the biographer Plutarch (46 to 120), and a chose a different method. Suetonius only briefly covers the facts of the lives before moving to more personal, non-political material about his subjects, classified and arranged according to subject matter. Although this sounds dry the result is the opposite; the inclusion of lots of juicy gossip and anecdotes, delivered with a deadpan, non-judgemental expression.

In his introduction to the Penguin edition, the renowned classicist Michael Grant (1914 to 2004) points out that Suetonius’s main contribution to the genre was that he moved away from the traditional eulogistic treatment of dead great men to take a more ‘astringent’ and ‘disenchanted’ view (lovely words).

Above all, he avoids the heavy moralising of earlier writers (Sallust with his heavy moralising and Plutarch with his negative opinion of Caesar, both spring to mind). Suetonius assembles evidence for and against his subjects – then leaves it for the reader to decide.

Penguin still publish the translation they commissioned in the 1950s from the famous novelist and poet Robert Graves, a writer who is just as charming and gossipy as Suetonius (see his wonderful memoir Goodbye To All That).

The Life of Caesar

Just as with Plutarch’s life of Julius Caesar, Suetonius’s life appears to be missing the first section, about the great man’s family and boyhood. Why? Did Augustus suppress them as he is said to have suppressed Caesar’s juvenile writings, in order to manipulate and burnish the legend of his adoptive father?

The Life consists of 89 short sections which fill 40 pages of the Penguin translation.

(1) Aged barely 18, Caesar married Cornelia, daughter of the consul Lucius Cornelius Cinna, of Gaius Marius’s party. The dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla demanded that Caesar ‘put her away’ i.e. divorce her, but Caesar obstinately refused and had to go into hiding from Sulla’s wrath. Eventually friends of his persuaded Sulla to relent, at which he spoke the much quoted words: “Have your way and take him but bear in mind that the man you are so eager to save will one day deal the death blow to the cause of the aristocracy, which you have joined with me in upholding. There are many Mariuses in this fellow Caesar.”

(2) He went to serve in Asia as aide-de-camp to the provincial governor Marcus Thermus. When sent to  raise a fleet in Bithynia he spent so much time with king Nicomedes that a rumour spread he was having a homosexual relationship with him. [A reputation for philandering was to follow Caesar cf his affair with Cleopatra.]

(3) He was serving another commander in Cilicia (southern Turkey) when the death of Sulla in 78 BC opened up the political scene and he hurried back to Rome, He was offered a place in the revolt of Marcus Lepidus but doubted the latter’s chances and turned it down.

(4) He brought a law suit against Cornelius Dolabella but it failed and to escape the resulting ill feeling he headed off to Rhodes to study under the noted orator Apollonius Molo. But en route he was captured by pirates and held to ransom. When his family and friends coughed up the required amount (50 talents = 12,000 gold pieces) Caesar promptly hired some ships and soldier, tracked down the pirates and had them all crucified. Then continued on to Rhodes to study.

(5) On Caesar’s return to Rome he helped the Assembly undo aspects of Sulla’s constitutional reforms, for example restoring the veto of the tribunes of the plebs.

(6) During his quaestorship in 69 BC he delivered eulogies to his aunt Julia [the one who had married the general and ruler of Rome Gaius Marius] and wife Cornelia, in which he lost no opportunity to remind everyone that his extended family or clan, the Julii, claimed descent from Aeneas and through him to the goddess Venus.

He next married Pompeia but divorced her after the strange (and irritatingly ubiquitous) story about Publius Clodius Pulcher disguising himself as a woman to enter Caesar’s house during the women-only rites for the goddess Bona.

(7) As quaestor he was sent to help govern Spain, In Gades he was seen to sigh on seeing the statue of Alexander the Great, vexed that, at the same age as Alexander when he died, he had done nothing of note. [In Plutarch the same story is told except Caesar bursts into tears.] He had a dream of raping his mother which the soothsayers interpreted as meaning he was destined to conquer the Earth, ‘our Universal Mother’.

(8) He laid down his quaestorship and visited the citizens living beyond the river Po who complained that they weren’t granted full Roman citizenship and might have raised them in revolt had not the authorities brought in fresh legions. In other words, he was an impatient ambitious young man looking for a cause.

(9) He was elected aedile in 65 BC. Suetonius then reports that Caesar conspired with Rome’s richest man, Marcus Licinius Crassus, to overthrow the government, to storm the Senate, massacre as many senators as possible, have Crassus installed as dictator with Caesar his Master of Horse or deputy, and a couple of other conspirators as consuls. Apparently Crassus got cold feet and the plan fell through. Suetonius mentions another conspiracy, with Piso, to raise rebellion in Rome, the Po valley and Spain simultaneously. Suetonius knows these are scandalous accusations and so names three other historians as his authorities. None of this is mentioned in Plutarch.

(10) As aedile Caesar put on spectacular shows. In fact he assembled so many gladiators for public fights that his opponents thought he was going to use them for political violence and rushed through a law limiting the number of gladiators that anyone might keep in Rome.

(11) Ambition. Caesar tried to get control of Egypt by popular vote following the outcry after Pharaoh Ptolemy XII, officially a friend and ally of Rome, was overthrown – but the aristocratic party foiled his attempt. [All this is context for his involvement in Egypt and Cleopatra 20 years later.] In revenge he restored statues of the anti-aristocratic Marius throughout central Rome. He also prosecuted bounty hunters who had brought in the heads of those proscribed under Sulla.

(12) He presided over the trial of Gaius Rabirius.

(13) He won the position of pontifex maximus, getting deeply into debt in order to bribe the people. Suetonius repeats the oft-told story that, on the morning of his election, as he set off to the polls, he told his mother he would return as pontifex or not at all [generally taken to mean he would be in so much debt that if he didn’t win the post, he’d be forced to flee the city.]

(14) The Catiline conspiracy Caesar spoke against the death penalty for the conspirators and swayed most of the Senate till Marcus Porcius Cato (also known as Cato the Younger) stood up and spoke sternly in favour of the death penalty. [A full transcript of these dramatic speeches, albeit probably made up, is given in Sallust’s Cataline’s War.]

Suetonius goes beyond previous accounts in adding the dramatic detail that when Caesar persisted in his call for clemency, a troop of Roman knights threatened him and even drew their swords and made  threatening passes with them so that his friends had to rally round and shield him. Only then did he yield the point, withdraw, and for the rest of the year didn’t revisit the Senate House.

This sounds like an artistic touch, like a deliberate prefigurement of his assassination 20 years later.

(15) On the first day of his praetor­ship he called upon Quintus Catulus to render an account owing to the people touching the restoration of the Capitol, but abandoned it when the aristocratic party of senators, who had been accompanying the newly elected consuls to the Capitol, returned to the Senate building.

(16) He supported Caecilius Metellus, tribune of the commons, in bringing some bills of a highly seditious nature in spite of the veto of his colleagues. Even when the Senate ordered him to cease and desist, he persisted until they threatened him with violence at which point he dismissed his lictors, laid aside his robe of office, and slipped off to his house.

All these stories bespeak the rebellious obstinacy of the man and the turbulence which surrounded him.

(17) He then got into trouble by being named among the accomplices of Catiline by an informer called Lucius Vettius and in the senate by Quintus Curius. Caesar strongly refuted the claims, not least by pointing out how he had alerted Cicero, consul and lead magistrate in Rome, of the conspiracy and so was decisive in getting is quelled. He secured the conviction and imprisonment of both informers.

(18) After securing the governorship of Further Spain he left hastily before formally confirmed in post in order to avoid his, by now, numerous and clamouring creditors. He restored order in the province but returned hastily to Rome to claim a triumph. He also wanted to be consul for the following year and couldn’t do both. After agonising, he entered the city, thus losing the triumph, in order to contest the consulship.

(19) Caesar was elected consul but not with the partner he wanted, as the aristocracy lobbied hard and bribed heavily to ensure that one of their party, Marcus Bibulus, was elected as his partner consul. The optimates then offered him the most trivial and demeaning governorship possible, of ‘woods and pastures’, which in practice meant guarding the mountain-pastures and keeping the woods free from brigands.

Frustrated, Caesar worked behind the scenes to reconcile the most successful general in the land, Pompey, and the richest man, Crassus, to come to a behind the scenes arrangement to share power and secure each other’s aims. This came to be called the First Triumvirate.

(20) As consul Caesar immediately passed a law that the proceedings both of the senate and of the people should day by day be compiled and published. He also revived a by-gone custom, that during the months when he did not have the fasces an orderly should walk before him, while the lictors followed him. He brought forward an agrarian law too and when his partner consul opposed it, drove him from the Senate by force, terrorising him into remaining in his house for the rest of his term.

Caesar had in effect made himself sole ruler. A joke went round that official documents, instead of being signed by the two consuls i.e. “Done in the consul­ship of Bibulus and Caesar” were marked “Done in the consul­ship of Julius and Caesar”. Many a true word spoken in jest. Suetonius gives examples of Caesar’s peremptory behaviour:

  • he divided public land among twenty thousand citizens who had three or more children each
  • when the tax collectors asked for relief, he freed them from a third part of their obligation but warned them from bidding too recklessly for contracts in the future
  • he freely granted to anyone whatever they took it into their heads to ask
  • Cato, who tried to delay proceedings, was dragged from the House by a lictor at Caesar’s command and taken off to prison
  • when Lucius Lucullus was too outspoken in his opposition, he filled him with such fear of malicious prosecution that Lucullus actually fell on his knees before him
  • because Cicero, while pleading in a court case, deplored the times, Caesar transferred the orator’s enemy Publius Clodius that same day from the patricians to the plebeians, something Clodius had vainly been striving for for ages
  • he bribed an informer to declare that he had been encouraged by certain men to murder Pompey, and to name them in public; however, the informer bungled the task and to cover this attempt to incriminate the entire body of his political enemies, Caesar had the would be informant poisoned

(21) As previously discussed, marriage in ancient Rome was an important way of creating political alliances. Caesar now married Calpurnia, daughter of Lucius Piso, who was to succeed him in the consul­ship, and married his own daughter, Julia, to Gnaeus Pompeius, to cement their partnership.

(22) With these influential backers in place Caesar now lobbied to be awarded the governorship of Gaul, not the ‘woods and pastures’, figuring, like so many Roman governors, that it would a an excellent location in which a) to gain military glory b) fleece the natives and grow rich.

At first by the bill of Vatinius he received only Cisalpine Gaul with the addition of Illyricum but then the Senate, fearful that the people would lobby violently, decided to add Gallia Comata as well. Suetonius passes on a juicy anecdote that, later, among friends, he celebrated his success over his enemies and said he would use it to mount on their heads with a pun meaning a) clambering over their heads b) mounting their penises.

When someone insultingly remarked that that would be no easy matter for any woman, he replied in the same vein that Semiramis too had been queen in Syria and the Amazons in days of old had held sway over a great part of Asia.

(23) As soon as his consulship ended some praetors tried to bring legal proceedings against him for misconduct but Caesar managed to bribe his way out of this and thenceforward took pains to be on good terms with all succeeding magistrates, getting them to vow and even sign pledges not to prosecute him.

[This is how Roman politics worked. Academics explain the process of voting for candidates but not enough attention is paid to what appears to be the almost inevitable consequence of office which is someone will try and prosecute you. While canvassing for office candidates had to spend a fortune bribing the voters and, after leaving office, had to spend a fortune bribing succeeding officials not to prosecute them. Forget morality – it was just a crazily unstable system.]

(24) Suetonius has the motivation behind Caesar calling a meeting of the Triumvirate in Luca, in 56, being that Lucius Domitius, candidate for the consul­ship, was threatening to remove him from the generalship of the armies in Gaul. He called Pompey, Crassus and a third of the Senate to head this off and, in exchange for favours to his partners, had his command in Gaul extended by 5 years.

(25) Suetonius summarises Caesar’s 9 years in Gaul:

  • he reduced the entire area to a province and imposed an annual tribute of 40 million sestercii
  • he was the first to build a bridge over the Rhine and attack the Germans on their home turf
  • he invaded Britain, exacting money and hostages

In all this time he suffered only three setbacks:

  • in Britain, where his fleet narrowly escaped destruction in a violent storm
  • in Gaul, when one of his legions was routed at Gergovia
  • on the borders of Germany, when his lieutenants Titurius and Aurunculeius were ambushed and slain

[In fact, by Caesar’s own account, he suffered more close shaves than that.]

(25) After the murder of Clodius the Senate voted for just one consul to hold office and gave it to Pompey. This seems a little garbled. I thought Pompey was awarded sole consulship in light of the ongoing riots between the rival gangs of Clodius and Titus Annius Milo.

Caesar now began lobbying to be awarded the consulship at the moment he relinquished his command in Gaul in 50 BC. He began to campaign lavishly, he:

  • began to build a new forum with his spoils from Gaul
  • announced a massive feast in memory of his daughter
  • he announced massive gladiatorial games and paid for gladiators to be trained
  • he doubled the pay of the legions for all time
  • whenever grain was plenti­ful he distributed it to the people

Populism. When he had put all Pompey’s friends under obligation, as well as the greater part of the Senate, through loans made without interest or at a low rate, he lavished gifts on men of all other classes.

(28) How he curried favour with foreign princes, sending troops or money or hostages as appropriate. He paid for public works for the principle cities throughout the empire. [Plutarch doesn’t make mention of this global campaign. Is it a later inflation of the legend?]

Nonetheless, events moved towards their crisis. The consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus proposed that, since peace was finally established in Gaul, Caesar be relieved of his command but forbidden from standing as consul in that year’s elections. The precise opposite of what Caesar wanted.

(29) The following year Gaius Marcellus, who had succeeded his cousin Marcus as consul, tried the same thing but Caesar by a heavy bribe secured the support of the other consul, Aemilius Paulus, and of Gaius Curio, the most reckless of the tribunes. He proposed a compromise, that he give up eight legions and Transalpine Gaul but be allowed to keep two legions and Cisalpine Gaul until he was elected consul.

(30) At the crisis intensified, Caesar crossed the Alps to Cisalpine Gaul and halted at Ravenna. When the Senate passed a decree that Caesar should disband his army before a given date and the tribunes Mark Antony and Quintus Cassius exercised their privilege and vetoed it, not only did the Senate ignore the veto but hounded the tribunes out of town with the threat of violence.

Why did he cross the Rubicon? Pompey later said it was he couldn’t afford to complete all the great works he’d promised and so wanted a state of disruption. Others said he knew he would be prosecuted for breaking umpteen laws during his first consulship. Cato hugely exacerbated the problem by taking an oath swearing he would impeach Caesar the minute he lay down his command. The simplest reason is he knew he would be tried, found guilty of something and permanently exiled.

(31) The story of how he decided to cross the Rubicon and sent his troops ahead but himself spent all day very publicly around Ravenna and in the evening attended a party, to allay suspicions. Only at the end of the evening did he harness a carriage and race to meet his troops.

(32) As he and his troops hesitated a being of wondrous stature and beauty appeared, snatched a trumpet from one of the soldiers, strode across the river and sounded the war-note with mighty blast from the other side. If only all corporate decisions were made that way.

(33) He harangued the soldiers with tears and tore his tunic and waved his hand around. This latter gave rise to a misunderstanding for he wore his senator’s ring on his left hand and the soldiers who couldn’t hear him thought he was offering them each a fortune to fight for him.

(34) He overran Umbria, Picenum, and Etruria, took prisoner Lucius Domitius, who was holding the town of Corfinium, let him go free, then proceeded along the Adriatic to Brundisium, where Pompey and the consuls had taken refuge. He tried but failed to prevent them sailing in a fleet across to modern day Albania but had no ships of his own to follow, so marched on Rome, taking it. Here he dealt peacefully with his remaining enemies, before setting off for Spain in order to defeat Pompey’s strongest forces, under command of three of his lieutenants – Marcus Petreius, Lucius Afranius, and Marcus Varro – which he did with surprising speed.

(35) Suetonius makes very light indeed of what happened next, describing Caesar’s assembly of a fleet, transport of his army across the Adriatic, the four month siege of Dyrrhachium, then following Pompey’s army into Thrace where he soundly defeated him at the battle of Pharsalum in one sentence. He followed the fleeing Pompey to Egypt where he arrived to discover he had been murdered by Egyptian officers who thought it would please him, and then became embroiled in an inconvenient war, bottled-up in the city of Alexandria. He was eventually triumphant over the army of the pharaoh who fled and was never heard of again, so that Caesar was able to leave Egypt in control of Ptolemy’s sister, Cleopatra.

Then he sums up the separate campaigns in Asia, Africa and Spain thus:

From Alexandria he crossed to Syria, and from there went to Pontus, spurred on by the news that Pharnaces, son of Mithridates the Great, had taken advantage of the situation to make war, and was already flushed with numerous successes; but Caesar vanquished him in a single battle within five days after his arrival and four hours after getting sight of him, often remarking on Pompey’s good luck in gaining his principal fame as a general by victories over such feeble foemen. Then he overcame Scipio and Juba, who were patching up the remnants of their party in Africa, and the sons of Pompey in Spain.

[Suetonius is a man in a hurry. All this is covered in vastly more detail in Caesar’s own account of the War in Alexandria, and whoever wrote the accounts of the campaigns in north Africa and Spain.]

(36) In all the civil wars Caesar suffered not a single disaster except through his lieutenant.

(37) Having ended the wars, he celebrated five triumphs, the first and most splendid was the Gallic triumph, the next the Alexandrian, then the Pontic, after that the African, and finally the Spanish, each differing from the rest in its equipment and display of spoils. He mounted the Capitol by torchlight with forty elephants bearing lamps on his right and his left. In his Pontic triumph he displayed among the show-pieces an inscription with just three words, “I came, I saw, I conquered,” not even bothering to describe the events of the war or the key battle (the battle of Zela, August 47 BC) but emphasising what he himself considered his outstanding quality which was amazing speed, of approach and attack.

(38) As examples of the astonishing liberality of these top leaders, Suetonius states that:

To each and every foot-soldier of his veteran legions he gave 24,000 sesterces by way of booty, over and above the 2,000 apiece which he had paid them at the beginning of the civil strife. He also assigned them lands but was careful not to dispossess any of the former owners. To every man of the people he gave 10 pecks of grain and the same number of pounds of oil plus the 300 sesterces he had promised at first, and 100 apiece because of the delay. He remitted a year’s rent in Rome to tenants who paid 2,000 sesterces or less and in Italy up to 500 sesterces. He added a banquet and a dole of meat, and after his Spanish victory two dinners for everyone.

[The reader is awed by the wealth of these super-rich people, but also at the kind of society in which this was a recognised convention or way of proceeding.]

(39) Having covered the war against Pompey and his heirs with laughable superficiality, Suetonius devotes twice as much space to describing the lavish games Caesar paid for. It is worth quoting at length because its impact derives from its scale.

1. He gave entertainments of diverse kinds: a combat of gladiators and also stage-plays in every ward all over the city, performed too by actors of all languages, as well as races in the circus, athletic contests, and a sham sea-fight. In the gladiatorial contest in the Forum Furius Leptinus, a man of praetorian stock, and Quintus Calpenus, a former senator and pleader at the bar, fought to a finish. A Pyrrhic dance was performed by the sons of the princes of Asia and Bithynia. 2. During the plays Decimus Laberius, a Roman knight, acted a farce of his own composition, and having been presented with five hundred thousand sesterces and a gold ring,​ passed from the stage through the orchestra and took his place in the fourteen rows.​ For the races the circus was lengthened at either end and a broad canal​ was dug all about it; then young men of the highest rank drove four-horse and two-horse chariots and rode pairs of horses, vaulting from one to the other. The game called Troy was performed by two troops, of younger and of older boys. 3. Combats with wild beasts were presented on five successive days, and last of all there was a battle between two opposing armies, in which five hundred foot-soldiers, twenty elephants, and thirty horsemen engaged on each side. To make room for this, the goals were taken down and in their place two camps were pitched over against each other. The athletic competitions lasted for three days in a temporary stadium built for the purpose in the region of the Campus Martius. 4. For the naval battle a pool was dug in the lesser Codeta and there was a contest of ships of two, three, and four banks of oars, belonging to the Tyrian and Egyptian fleets, manned by a large force of fighting men. Such a throng flocked to all these shows from every quarter, that many strangers had to lodge in tents pitched in streets or along the roads, and the press was often such that many were crushed to death, including two senators.

(40) Caesar reformed the calendar, adding a few days to make it last the 365 days of the solar year, with an extra day added every fourth year, such as we still do, 2,000 years later.

(41) He filled the vacancies in the senate, enrolled additional patricians, and increased the number of praetors, aediles, and quaestors, as well as of the minor officials. Half the officials were elected in the old way, half were directly appointed by him.

(42) Details of more of his reforms, including how long citizens were allowed to live overseas, who was allowed to travel. He made a partial attempt to sort out the problem of indebtedness which seems to have been one of Rome’s most enduring social problem. He dissolved all guilds, except those of ancient foundation. He increased the penalties for crimes.

(43) 1. He administered justice with the utmost conscientiousness and strictness. Those convicted of extortion he dismissed from the senatorial order. He imposed duties on foreign wares. He denied the use of litters and the wearing of scarlet robes or pearls to all except those of a designated position and age, and on set days. 2. He enforced the laws against extravagance, setting watchmen in the market to seize and bring to him dainties which were exposed for sale in violation of the law. Sometimes he sent his lictors and soldiers to take from a dining-room any articles which had escaped the vigilance of his watchmen, even if they had already been served to the guests.

(44) Caesar’s grand public schemes involved:

  • to build a temple of Mars bigger than any in existence
  • to build a theatre of vast size, sloping down from the Tarpeian rock
  • to reduce the civil code to fixed limits and the vast, prolix mass of statutes down to only the best and most essential
  • to open to the public the greatest possible libraries of Greek and Latin books
  • to drain the Pontine marshes
  • to build a highway from the Adriatic across the summit of the Apennines as far as the Tiber

Militarily, he planned to check the Dacians, who had poured into Pontus and Thrace then to make war on the Parthians by way of Lesser Armenia.

[Remember I mentioned that Suetonius departed from the basic chronological methodology of his predecessors by adding descriptions of his subjects’ characters by category? Well, sections 45 to about 77 of the Life of Caesar do just that, pausing the (often very superficial) account of Caesar’s life story to look at a range of his qualities or characteristics.]

Before I speak of Caesar’s death, it will not be amiss to describe briefly his personal appearance, his dress, his mode of life, and his character, as well as his conduct in civil and military life.

(45) “He is said to have been tall of stature with a fair complexion, shapely limbs, a somewhat full face, and keen black eyes. Sound of health, except that towards the end he was subject to sudden fainting fits and to nightmare as well. He was twice attacked by the falling sickness​ during his campaigns. 2. He was overnice in the care of his person, being not only carefully trimmed and shaved, but even having superfluous hair plucked out.”

[Hence his reputation, as a young man, of being a dandy.]

“His baldness was a disfigurement which troubled him greatly since he found that it was often the subject of the gibes of his detractors. Because of this he used to comb fhis thin hair forward from the crown of his head. Of all the honours voted him by the senate and people he welcomed none more gladly than the privilege of wearing a laurel wreath at all times since it covered his baldness.”

(46) He is said to have built a country house on his estate at Nemi at great cost but then torn it down because it did not suit him in every particular even though he was, at the time, poor and in debt. It was said that he carried tesselated and mosaic floors about with him on his campaigns [!].

(47) “He was an enthusiastic collector of gems, carvings, statues, and pictures by early artists. Also of slaves of exceptional figure and training at enormous prices, of which he himself was so ashamed that he forbade their entry in his accounts.”

(48) “He was so punctilious in the management of his household that he put his baker in irons for serving him with one kind of bread and his guests with another. He inflicted capital punishment on a favourite freedman for adultery with the wife of a Roman knight, although no complaint was made against him.”

(49) His early ‘friendship with King Nicomedes dogged the rest of his career, giving rise to no end of homophobic quips and insults.

(50) His affairs with women were described as numerous and extravagant. He seduced the wives of many senators and even Pompey’s wife Mucia. “But beyond all others Caesar loved Servilia, the mother of Marcus Brutus, for whom in his first consul­ship he bought a pearl costing six million sesterces.” Some people said that Servilia prostituted her own daughter Tertia to Caesar.

(51) That he behaved the same in Gaul is suggested by one of the many bawdy songs his soldiers sang about him in the Gallic triumph: “Men of Rome, keep close to your consorts, here’s a bald adulterer.”

(52) He had affairs with foreign queens, the most notable of course being Cleopatra. It is said that he would have followed her in a barge up the Nile to Ethiopia but his soldiers rebelled. He lavished her with presents and titles and she bore his son, Caesarion.

The extraordinary suggestion that Helvius Cinna, tribune of the commons, admitted to friends that he had a bill drawn which Caesar had ordered him to propose to the people in his absence, making it lawful for Caesar to marry what wives he wished, and as many as he wished, “for the purpose of begetting children.” [He sounds like an African dictator.]

That he had a bad reputation both for shameless vice and for adultery is suggested by the fact that the elder Curio in one of his speeches called him “every woman’s man and every man’s woman.” [Bisexual and shamelessly promiscuous.]

(53) He drank little, was never drunk, and cared little about food.

(54) In Gaul and Spain he shamelessly sacked towns which had surrendered in order to loot them. At first this was to pay off his monster debts but eventually he accumulated so much god “he didn’t know what to do with it”. In his first consul­ship he stole 3,000 pounds of gold from the Capitol, replacing it with the same weight of gilded bronze. He made alliances and thrones a matter of barter, for he extorted from Ptolemy alone nearly 6,000 talents. Later on he met the heavy expenses of the civil wars, his triumphs and entertainments by the most bare-faced pillage and sacrilegious looting of temples.

(55) Caesar equalled or surpassed both the greatest generals and the greatest orators in history. His prosecution of Dolabella placed him in the first rank of advocates and Cicero asked in his Brutus whether his readers knew of a better speaker than Caesar, of anyone who spoke so wittily with such a wide yet precise vocabulary.

(56) Caesar left memoirs of the Gallic war and the civil war with Pompey. The author of their continuations into a history of the Alexandrian, African, and Spanish Wars is unknown; some think it was Oppius, others Hirtius, who also supplied the final book of the Gallic War.

Cicero thought the accounts were “naked in their simplicity, straightforward yet graceful, stripped of all rhetorical adornment, as of a garment” and obviously written to supply material to others.

The orator, poet, playwright, literary critic, and historian Gaius Asinius Pollio thought they had been left incomplete and that Caesar intended to revise and polish them. Also that they were flawed because Caesar was biased in the description of his own accounts and too readily believed his subordinates’ accounts of their doings.

(57) He was highly skilled in arms and horseman­ship, and of incredible powers of endurance. He moved at incredible speed, sometimes covering 100 miles in a day, sometimes arriving at his destination before the messengers sent to warn of his coming.

(58) He was careful and cautious, about crossing to Britain, about crossing the Rhine, about crossing from Brundisium to Dyrrachium.

(59) No regard for religion ever turned him from any undertaking, or even delayed him.

(60) He joined battle, not only after planning his movements in advance but on a sudden opportunity, often immediately at the end of a march, and sometimes in the foulest weather, when one would least expect him to make a move.

(61) He rode a remarkable horse with feet that were almost human for its hoofs were cloven in such a way as to look like toes. This horse was foaled on his own place and the soothsayers foretold that its master would one day rule the world.

(62) When his army gave way, he often rallied it single-handed, planting himself in the way of the fleeing men and grabbing them one by one and turning them to face the enemy.

(63) He was famous for his presence of mind in a crisis.

(64) “At Alexandria, while assaulting a bridge, he was forced by a sudden sally of the enemy to take to a small skiff. When many others threw themselves into the same boat, he plunged into the sea, and after swimming for 200 paces, got away to the nearest ship, holding up his left hand all the way, so as not to wet some papers which he was carrying, and dragging his cloak after him with his teeth, to keep the enemy from getting it as a trophy.” [This seems to derive the War in Alexandria.]

(65) He valued his soldiers neither for their personal character nor for their fortune, but solely for their prowess, and he treated them with equal strictness and indulgence.

(66) When they were in a panic through reports about the enemy’s numbers, he used to rouse their courage not by denying or discounting the rumours, but by falsely exaggerating the true danger.

(67) He did not take notice of all his soldiers’ offences or punish them by rule, but he kept a sharp look out for deserters and mutineers. This he chastised them most severely, shutting his eyes to other faults.

(68) His men were fantastically loyal to him and looked after each other. When captured they refused to go over to the other side. They fought fanatically.

(69) They did not mutiny once during the ten years of the Gallic war. In the civil wars they did so now and then, but quickly resumed their duty. Caesar discharged the entire ninth legion in disgrace before Placentia, though Pompey was still in the field, reinstating them unwillingly and only after many abject entreaties, while insisting on punishing the ringleaders.

(70) How he handled the Tenth Legion which clamoured to be released from duty and which he humiliated by calling them ‘citizens’, making them beg to be reinstated as citizens again.

(71) His rescue of Masintha, a youth of high birth, against king Hiempsa.

(72) His friends he treated with invariable kindness and consideration.

(73) He readily forgave his enemies including Gaius Memmius, Gaius Calvus and the poet Valerius Catullus.

(74) Even in revenge he was merciful. Suetonius claims that when Caesar tracked down the pirates who had held him captive and had them crucified, he ordered their throats cut first so they didn’t really suffer.

(75) He repeatedly spared the lives of enemies, promoted some to high offices, in battle refused to kill his prisoners when the opposition killed theirs, and so on.

(76) On the other hand, he was intolerably puffed up with pride and accept excessive honours, such as:

  • an uninterrupted consul­ship
  • the dictator­ship for life
  • the censor­ship of public morals
  • the forename Imperator
  • the surname of Father of his Country
  • a statue among those of the kings
  • and a raised couch in the orchestra

He allowed honours to be bestowed on him which were too great for mortal man:

  • a golden throne in the House and on the judgment seat
  • a chariot and litter carrying his image in the procession at the circus
  • temples, altars, and statues beside those of the gods
  • an additional college of the Luperci
  • and the calling of one of the months by his name

He ruled by personal whim appointing officials with total disregard for law and precedent.

(77) A selection of some of his ‘arrogant’ sayings such as that the ‘state’ was a name without a body and that Sulla made a mistake when he lay down his dictatorship.

(78) The event which caused most ill feeling was when the Senate approached him in a body with many highly honorary decrees and Caesar received them before the temple of Venus Genetrix without rising. Some think he was held back by Cornelius Balbus, others that he felt one of his epileptic fits coming on and didn’t dare rise, but the story is widely attested as a prime example of him arrogantly thinking himself above the state.

(79) Kingship The events and rumours which led people to think he seriously aimed at becoming king, the one thing anathema to all Romans:

  • at the Latin Festival someone placed on his statue a laurel wreath with a white fillet tied to it symbolising kingship. When two tribunes ordered that the ribbon be removed from the wreath and the man taken off to prison, Caesar rebuked and deposed them. He claimed this was because he had been robbed of the glory of refusing it but from that time on he could not rid himself of the odium of having aspired to the title of monarch
  • the famous quip, when asked if he wanted to be king, that “I am Caesar and no king”
  • at the feast of the Lupercalia, when Mark Antony several times attempted to place a crown on his head as he spoke from the rostra, he put it aside and at last sent it to the Capitol, to be offered to Jupiter Optimus Maximus
  • reports that he planned to move to Alexandria, taking with him the resources of the state and leaving Rome in the charge of deputies
  • the rumour that at the next meeting of the Senate Lucius Cotta would announce as the decision of the college of fifteen priests that, since it was written in the Sybilline Books that the Parthians could only be conquered only by a king, Caesar should be given that title

(80) Examples of the resentment of the people at Caesar’s adoption of absolute power [Suetonius doesn’t give us details of when he made himself dictator and the powers it gave him]. Thus:

  • when Caesar admitted foreigners into the Senate, a placard was posted telling no-one to point out the way to the Senate House “to a newly made senator”
  • rude verses were made up and sung accusing Caesar of promoting Gauls
  • Caesar appointed Quintus Maximus as consul in his place for three months, but when Quintus was entering the theatre, and his lictor called attention to his arrival in the usual manner, a general shout was raised: “He’s no consul!”
  • someone wrote on the base of Lucius Brutus’ statue, the man who drove the last kings from Rome: “Oh, that you were still alive”

Thus there was widespread popular feeling against Caesar and this encouraged different groups of conspirators to coalesce into one big conspiracy, which eventually totally 60 men. Various times and places were discussed until a meeting of the Senate was called for the Ideas (15) of March and the plan coalesced.

(81) Just as much as Plutarch, Suetonius takes bad omens seriously enough to record them in detail:

  • at Capua settlers in the new colony found in some old tombs a bronze tablet saying that when these bones were moved, a son of Ilium shall be slain at the hands of his kindred and avenged at heavy cost to Italy [son of Ilium because a) that was the Greek name for Troy b) Caesar’s family, the Julii, claimed descent from Aeneas, a prince of Troy]
  • the herds of horses which he had dedicated to the river Rubicon when he crossed it, and had let loose without a keeper, stubbornly refused to graze and wept copiously
  • when Caesar was offering sacrifice, the soothsayer Spurinna warned him to beware of danger, which would come not later than the Ides of March
  • on the day before the Ides of March a little bird called the king-bird flew into the Hall of Pompey with a sprig of laurel, pursued by others of various kinds from the grove hard by, which tore it to pieces in the hall
  • the night before his murder he dreamt now that he was flying above the clouds, now that he was clasping the hand of Jupiter
  • his wife Calpurnia dreamed that the pediment​ of their house fell, and that her husband was stabbed in her arms

Which is why he hesitated to go to the Senate House that morning but Decimus Brutus, who was in on the conspiracy, kept urging him not to let the Senate down, so eventually he left his house and set off. Several people handed him notes warning him of the conspiracy but he merely held onto them without reading.

Finally, it is said that he laughed at Spurinna and calling him a false prophet, because the Ides of March had come and he wasn’t harmed – but Spurinna replied that they had indeed come, but they had not gone.

(82) Description of the precise order of who stabbed him where. Compare and contrast with Plutarch. What always amazes me is that in a such a heavily militarised society where almost every adult male had served in the army, it took 23 stab wounds to kill him. Everyone fled the scene leaving the body and it was left to three slaves to place it on a litter and carry it home to his wife.

The conspirators had intended to drag his body to the Tiber, confiscate his property and revoke his decrees but they forebore through fear of Marcus Antonius the consul, and Lepidus, the master of horse. [Unlike Plutarch’s version where they ran out of the Senate House crying “Liberty! Freedom!”]

(83) Suetonius has Caesar’s will being opened and read at Mark Antony’s house: he allotted three quarters of his fortune to his sisters’ grandson, Gaius Octavius, and Lucius Pinarius and Quintus Pedius to share the remainder. At the end of the will he adopted Gaius Octavius into his family and gave him his name. To the people he left his gardens near the Tiber for their common use and three hundred sesterces to each man.

(84) Suetonius gives a very different account of Caesar’s funeral which omits Antony’s inflammatory reading of the will and displaying the bloody toga to the mob, which infuriated them. Suetonius gives s detailed description of the gilded shrine which was made after the model of the temple of Venus Genetrix, within which was a couch of ivory with coverlets of purple and gold, and at its head a pillar hung with the robe in which he was slain. And that Antony had the decree of the Senate read out by which Caesar was deified, to which he added very few words of his own [unlike Plutarch, where it is Antony’s sustained impassioned speech which rouses the crowd to vengeance.

While his friends debated where the pyre should be lit, in another supernatural moment;

on a sudden two beings​ with swords by their sides and brandishing a pair of darts set fire to it with blazing torches, and at once the throng of bystanders heaped upon it dry branches, the judgment seats with the benches, and whatever else could serve as an offering.

Angels, apparently.

(85) Inflamed with anger the mob ran to set fire to the houses of the conspirators Brutus and Cassius, but were repelled. They came across the harmless poet Helvius Cinna in the street and, mistaking him for the conspirator Cornelius Cinna, tore him to pieces and paraded his head on a spear. [Suetonius doesn’t mention it but it was this incident which persuaded the conspirators to flee Rome, thus handing the city over to their enemy, Mark Antony.]

The people set up in the Forum a solid column of Numidian marble almost twenty feet high and inscribed upon it, “To the Father of his Country.” At the foot of this for years afterwards they made sacrifice, made vows, and settled disputes by an oath in the name of Caesar.

(86) Some of his friends thought Caesar no longer wanted to live due to failing health. This would explain why, despite the mounting rumours and ominous portents, he dismissed the armed bodyguard of Spanish soldiers that formerly attended him and went to the Senate unprotected.

It is reported that he said that it wasn’t for his own sake that he should remain alive – he had long since had his fill of power and glory – it was because if he were killed, the commonwealth would have no peace but be plunged into strife under much worse conditions. Which is precisely what happened.

(87) Everyone agrees Caesar himself had a horror of a long lingering death and wanted one which was sudden and unexpected.

(88) Caesar was 56 when he died and was swiftly deified, not only by a formal decree, but also in the hearts of the common people. At the first of the games which his heir Augustus gave in honour of his apotheosis, a comet shone for seven days in a row.

It was voted that the hall in which he was murdered be walled up, that the Ides of March be called the Day of Parricide, and that a meeting of the Senate should never be called on that day.

(89) Hardly any of his assassins survived him for more than three years or died a natural death. They all perished in various ways — some by shipwreck, some in battle; some took their own lives with the self-same dagger with which they had stabbed Caesar.

Comparisons

In comparison with Plutarch, Suetonius really skimps on the details of both the political intrigue and the military campaigns. Instead you get the character profiling about his horse and haircut and so on in chapters 45 to 77. For the intense debate in the Senate about the Catiline conspirators, read Sallust. For Caesar’s achievements in Gaul read his own account, ditto the civil war with Pompey. Cicero’s letters give a vivid feel of what it felt like living under Caesar’s dictatorship i.e. stifled and numb.

Like Plutarch, like plenty of commentators at the time and ever since, Suetonius seems conflicted in his opinion about Caesar, supplying plenty of evidence that he was an extravagant and arbitrary dictator, but also lamenting the impiety of his murder.


Related link

Roman reviews

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.

Related reviews

First World War

Russian Revolution

Between the wars

The Weimar Republic

German literature

Czech literature

French literature

Albert Camus

Jean-Paul Sartre

English literature

Graham Greene

George Orwell

The Middle East

The Spanish Civil War

The Second World War

The Holocaust

After the Second World War

The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present by Jonathan Fenby (2nd edition, 2013)

Westerners bore some blame for China’s plight, but the prime cause lay in the empire itself and its rulers. (p.94)

The bloodshed! The murders! The killings! The massacres! The public beheadings! The drownings! The executions! The torture! The mass rapes! The famines! The cannibalism! It’s a miracle China exists after so much death and destruction.

This is a huge book with 682 pages of text and on every page there are killings, murders, massacres, pogroms, famines, floods, executions, purges and liquidations. 150 years of murder, massacre and mayhem. It is a shattering and gruelling book to read.

An estimated 20 million died in the Taiping Rebellion which dragged on from 1850 to 1871. 20 million! Maybe 14 million died in the 8-year-war against Japan 1937-45. And then maybe as many as 45 million died during the chaotic thirty-year misrule of Chairman Mao!!!!

Throw in the miscellaneous other rebellions of the Taiping era (the Nian Rebellion, 100,000+ killed and vast loss of property), the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 (about 100,000 civilians and soldiers dead), the chaos of the Warlord Era (1916-28), immense losses during the long civil war between Nationalists and Communists (1927-49), and Fenby comes up with the commonly accepted figure that between 1850 and 1980 around 100 million Chinese died unnatural or unnecessary deaths.

100 million! The sheer scale of the killing, the torture and executions and butchery and burnings and beheadings and starving to death and burying alive is difficult to comprehend, and also difficult to cope with. Several times I lay the book down because I was so sickened by the butchery. Contemporary China is soaked in the blood of its forebears as no other country on earth.

Here’s a few examples from just the opening pages:

  • In 1850 Han officials massacred tens of thousands of Muslims in remote Yunnan (p.18)
  • When the Taiping army reached the Wuhan cities in 1851, it massacred the inhabitants. When it took Nanjing it ‘systematically butchered’ all the Manchu inhabitants (p.20)
  • The mandarin in charge of putting down the revolt in Canton boasted of having beheaded over 100,000 rebels and only lamented he couldn’t exterminate the entire class (p.22)
  • When the Xianfeng emperor died in 1861 he left the throne to a minor. A regency council was formed by a senior censor, Sushun. He was outwitted by the former emperor’s concubine Cixi, and was beheaded (the original plan had been to skin him alive) and two princes allied with him were allowed to hang themselves. (p.24) Can you imagine anything remotely similar happening at the court of Queen Victoria? Skinning alive?
  • 13 days after the death of the emperor, a gentry army took the river port of Anqing. The river was full of the headless bodies of rebels (p.26)
  • The silk city of Suzhou was held by 40,000 Taiping rebels. General Li Hongzhang besieged it and the rebel leaders surrendered. Li had all the leaders executed and half the defenders massacred, then the city was comprehensively looted (p.28)
  • When the poet and Taiping rebel leader Shi Dakai surrendered to save his troops from imperial forces, he himself was slowly sliced to death in the process sometimes translated as ‘death by a thousand cuts‘ (a form of punishment and torture commonly used in China until it was officially banned in 1905), and 2,000 of his troops were massacred (p.28)
  • The last engagement of the Taiping Rebellion was the imperial reconquest of the rebels’ capital at Nanjing in 1864. At least 100,000 rebels were killed in the three-day battle and the imperial army went on to massacre the entire population of Nanjing (p.29)
  • While the Taiping devastated the south, northern China was rocked by the Nian Rebellion with its snappy motto: ‘kill the rich and aid the poor’. (The more you learn, the more the disasters of Mao’s communism reveal their deep roots in Chinese tradition i.e. he was invoking and repeating well-established cultural practices.)
  • Having finally conquered the Taiping rebels, Qing imperial forces went north to exterminate the Nians, at first by surrounding and starving them. In one canton the population was reduced to eating the crushed bones of the dead and then to cannibalism. Then they were massacred (p.30).
  • In 1872 the leader of the rebellious Hui Muslims in Yunnan, surrounded in his capital Dali by imperial armies, swallowed an overdose of opium and had his corpse carried in a sedan chair to the imperial camp, where it was ceremonially decapitated. Then the imperial army launched a ferocious attack on Dali, an eye-witness claiming that not a single Muslim man, woman or child was left living, while the streets ran ankle deep in blood. The ears of the dead were cut off and more than 20,000 ears were sent in baskets to the court in Beijing. Any surviving women and children were sold as sex slaves (p.30)
  • Imperial general Zuo Zongtang besieged the leader of the anti-Qing rebellion in Gansu province, Ma Hualong, in his capital at Jinjipu. Having reduced the population to cannibalism, Zuo accepted the surrender of Ma before having him sliced alive, executing his son and officials, then massacring the town’s inhabitants, and burning it to the ground (p.31).

That’s just 13 pages out of 680. On and on it goes, the mind-boggling violence and cruelty – with murders, massacres, battles and pogroms, torture and beheadings, floods and famine on nearly every page.

The complete absence of democracy or debate

If the accumulated disasters ram home one bitter lesson, it is that Chinese politics and culture entirely lacked the ability to cope with dissenting voices and differing opinions. The Imperial system was based on total obedience. It was backed up by the phenomenally hierarchical philosophy of Confucius, in which everyone is subordinate to superiors and must obey (sons obey fathers, wives obey husbands etc).

From the court down, through the gentry class, the army, intellectuals and students – it was either Total Obedience or Total Rebellion, no middle way was possible because no middle way was conceivable. Mild dissent or liberal debate was – literally – incapable of being thought.

This top-down mindset was inherited by the Nationalist Party which imposed a sort of government over most of China between the wars – and then was repeated once again in the terrifying dictatorship of Mao Zedong from 1949 till his death in 1976.

The messy polyphony of Western democracies, with its satire, criticism, proliferating parties, all sorts of newspapers, magazines and outlets for opposition and dissent – with its free speech – was just one of the many things the Chinese despised about the West, and considered themselves loftily superior to.

Whether it was imperial China or Nationalist China or communist China: all Chinese disdained and mocked the uncultured buffoonery of western democracy.

And the result was war upon war upon war – your opponents weren’t guys you could just invite round for a beer and a chat about their demands and do deals with: they were ‘impious rebels’, ‘imperial running dogs’, ‘idolatrous demons’, ‘surrenderists’, ‘mountaintopists’ and so on.

On the evidence of this book China doesn’t appear to have much political theory. Instead it has a rich vocabulary of abuse based on one fundamental idea – he who is not with me is against me. Hence the litany of dehumanising insults used by all political players throughout this book which were designed to turn your opponents into non-human vermin who couldn’t be talked to, God no – who must simply be exterminated. And exterminated they were, on an industrial scale.

None of this changed when the empire fell in 1911: the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek carried on using the same language both about all their enemies (‘foreign devils’, ‘communist dogs’), while the communists went on, after 1949, to develop their own special language of abuse and dehumanisation.

As Fenby shows in excruciating detail, both Nationalists and communists not only massacred each other, but were riven by internal splits which led to pogroms and mass liquidations of their own sides. People couldn’t just agree to disagree (and what a beautiful achievement of English civilisation that phrase seems in this context): they felt compelled to exterminate the ‘capitalist roaders’ or ‘communist dogs’ on their own side.

For, as Fenby shows, from Tiananmen Square in 1989 to this day, the Chinese communist party leadership, despite having transformed their country into a peculiar type of state capitalism, is still incapable of managing dissenting voices and opinions. From mass movements like the Falun Gong, to the wishes of the Tibetan people kindly not to have their culture destroyed, to the Muslim separatists of Xinjiang, through to individual dissidents like the high-profile artist Ai Weiwei – there are no mechanisms for dialogue, there never have been: there is only the language of demonisation and total repression.

This utter inflexibility buried deep in the Chinese psyche, this inability of its leaders to tolerate any form of free speech, combined with an unbending sense of their own superiority and rectitude, is the enduring characteristic of Chinese leaders and one which has plunged their country again and again and again into bloodshed and terror on an unimaginable scale.

This book covers the 170 years from 1850 to the present. It feels like it skimps a bit on the earlier years – not telling me much more about the vast, calamitous Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) that I hadn’t learned from John Keay’s history of China – in fact it made me wonder whether there’s a good up-to-date history devoted to just the Taiping Rebellion, it’s such an extraordinary event.

So it’s only really in the 1870s and 80s that Fenby’s book hits its stride, the text becomes increasingly detailed, that you feel you are beginning to get to grips with the minutiae of the period, and to get a feel for the enormous cast of characters. In particular you get a good sense of how the later 19th century in China rotated around the figure of the cunning dowager empress Cixi and the constellation of young emperors and courtiers who circled round her.

As with Keay’s book, there is no point trying to summarise such a vast and complex history. Instead, I’ll give a basic timeline and then highlight a few of the thoughts and issues that arose.

China timeline

  • 1644 to 1912 Qing Dynasty Although the Qing rulers adapted quickly to traditional Chinese rule they were ethnically different from the majority of the native, Han Chinese, hailing from Manchuria in the north. This provided a pretext for all sorts of nationalist Han rebellions against Qing rule from the 1850s onwards. The later Qing emperors are:
    • Emperor Xianfeng (1850 – 1861)
    • Emperor Tongzhi (1861 – 1875)
    • Emperor Guangxu (1875 – 1908)
    • Emperor Xuantong (1908 – 1911)
  • 1850 to 1864 Taiping Rebellion – led by a religious zealot, Hong Xiuquan. Convinced he was Jesus’s younger brother, Hong whipped up his followers to expel all foreigners, which included not only westerners but the ‘alien’ Manchu dynasty. Wherever they triumphed, they massacred Manchus, and established a reign of terror based on countless public beheadings. The Taiping Rebellion was the bloodiest civil war and the largest conflict of the 19th century, and one of the bloodiest wars in all human history, with estimate of deaths ranging as high as 70 million, although more often set are a more reasonable 20 million. ‘Only’ 20 million.
  • 1894 to 1895 First Sino-Japanese War Fought over possession of Korea, until then a Chinese vassal state, to secure its coal and iron and agricultural products for Japan. The Japanese seized not only Korea but the Liaodong Peninsula and Port Arthur, within marching distance of Beijing, as well as the island of Taiwan.

Japanese soldiers beheading 38 Chinese POWs as a warning to others. Illustration by Utagawa Kokunimasa

  • 1898 The Guangxu Emperor’s Hundred Days’ Reform is stopped in its tracks and reversed by the Dowager Empress Cixi.
Empress Dowager Cixi, maybe the central figure of the last 50 years of the Chinese empire

Empress Cixi, the central figure of the last 40 years of the Chinese empire

  • 1899 to 1901 The Boxer Rebellion – Han Chinese rose up against foreigners, the highlight being the siege of the Western embassies in Beijing.
  • 1911 Anti-Qing rebellions break out accidentally and spread sporadically across China with no single unifying force, just a wave of local strongmen who reject Qing rule.
  • 1912 The last Qing emperor abdicates – Temporary presidency of republican hero Dr Sun Yat-sen.
  • 1912-1915 presidency of General Yuan Shikai, a military strongman who works through a network of allies and placemen around the provinces. Power goes to his head and he has himself declared emperor of a new dynasty, before dying of blood poisoning.
  • 1916-1928 The Warlord Era – China disintegrates into a patchwork of territories ruled by local warlords, creating a ‘meritocracy of violence’.
  • 1919 May 4th – Student protests against the humiliating terms of the Versailles peace Treaty (China, who sent over 100,000 coolies to help the Allies, was given nothing, while Japan, who did nothing, was given all the territory previously held by the defeated Germany, including territory in the province of Shandong, birthplace of Confucius, creating the so-called Shandong Problem).
  • 1919 October – foundation of the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party of China, a right-wing reaction against the pro-democracy 4th of May movement, which emphasised traditional Chinese values and, led by Chiang Kai-Shek in the 1920s and 30s, went on to form the nearest thing to a government China had, until defeated by the communists in 1949.
  • 1921 Inspired by the Fourth of May protests against imperialism and national humiliation, the Communist Party of China is formed with help from Russian Bolsheviks.
  • 1937 to 1945 Second Sino-Japanese War (see the book about it by Rana Mitter).

Themes and thoughts

Mass killing

Wow, the sheer scale of the the numbers who were killed. In the hundred and ten years from the Taiping Rebellion to the Cultural Revolution, maybe 100 million Chinese died unnatural deaths, actively killed or dying from avoidable starvation or drowning. The Taiping Rebellion itself was responsible for maybe 20 million deaths. The war with Japan caused another 14 million or so. Mao’s famine and general mismanagement maybe 45 million. 45 million.

Even what sound like fairly minor revolts in cities and towns, rural disturbances, seem to result in thousands of deaths almost every year. Every dozen or so pages Fenby quotes another western journalist arriving at the scene of another massacre by the Taiping rebels or Boxer rebels or warlord rebels, by the imperial forces or Muslim rebels, by the Nian or the nationalists or the communists – and finding the city razed to the ground and the river choked with corpses.

  • In 1895 James Creelman of the New York World finds Port Arthur devastated and the unarmed civilians butchered in their houses, the streets lined with corpses and heads stuck on pikes by the rampaging Japanese army (p.51).
  • In 1900 Richard Steel witnessed the aftermath of Boxer rebels’ attempt to take the foreign section of Tianjin, where they were mown down by Japanese and Russian soldiers, leaving the city in ruins and the river choked with Chinese corpses (p.90).

Brutality

Being made to kneel and have your head sliced off with a scimitar was a standard punishment for all sorts of crimes. As the empire crumbled and was subject to countless rebellions small and large across its vast territory, their suppression and punishment required an astonishing number of Chinese to chop each others’ heads off.

The Mandarin in charge of suppressing the Taiping Revolt in Canton boasted of having beheaded 100,000 rebels (p.22). During the 1911 revolution the new governor of Sichuan had his predecessor decapitated and rode through the streets brandishing his head (p.121).

Arms tied behind their backs, forced to kneel in big public gatherings, then head sliced off with a ceremonial sword

Arms tied behind their backs, forced to kneel in big public gatherings, head sliced off with a ceremonial sword. The Chinese way.

Resistance to change

I was staggered by the absolute, dead-set determination from top to bottom of Chinese society to set its face against modernisation, industrialisation, liberalisation, democracy and all the other new-fangled ideas from the West, which it so despised. From 1850 to about 1980, all Chinese governments were determined to reject, deny, censor and prevent any incorporation of corrupt, decadent, capitalist Western ideas and techniques.

As John Keay remarked in his history, a central characteristic of the Chinese is an ingrained superiority complex – their leaders, from the emperor to Chaing Kai-shek to Mao, just know that China is the centre of the world and is superior to the whole of the rest of the world, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Fenby describes the late-imperial world as ‘a system which was not designed to accommodate, let alone encourage, change’ (p.38.) As the late 19th century reformer Li Hongzhang admitted in 1884:

‘Affairs in my country have been so confined by tradition that I could not accomplish what I desired.’ (p.41)

The first railway in China, built by the British in Shanghai, was bought by the local council who had the rails torn up and the station turned into a temple. Railways interfered with feng shui and local customs, they brought in foreign devils. Like every other western innovation – i.e. like every single aspect of the modern world – they were resisted hammer and tongs by Chinese at all levels. As an edict from the Guangxu Emperor’s Hundred Days’ Reform put it, China was afflicted by:

‘the bane of the deeply-rooted system of inertness and a clinging to obsolete customs.’ (p.67)

Reformers were always in a minority, within the court itself, let alone in a country overwhelmingly populated by illiterate peasants. Which explains why it took China about 100 years – from the 1880s when it began to grasp some of the implications of capitalism – until well into the 1980s, to even begin to implement the basics of economic and technological reform.

Fenby’s immensely detailed picture takes account of the endless war, violence and conflict China was caught up in. But what comes over most strongly is the way Chinese of all ranks and levels of education didn’t want it – western ‘democracy’, ‘free speech’, competition, egalitarianism, innovation, entrepreneurism, disruptive technologies.

没有! Méiyǒu! NO!

Foreign devils

Rana Mitter’s book about the China-Japanese war contains a surprising amount of anti-western and anti-British feeling and he frequently refers to the ‘unequal treaties’ of the nineteenth century between European powers and a weakened China, but since his book is about the war of the 1930s, he doesn’t give a lot of detail.

Fenby’s book by contrast covers exactly the period of ‘unequal treaties’ (where European countries took advantage of China’s weakness to get her to sign away rights to trade, to give foreigners legal immunity from any kind of wrongdoing, handed European countries entire treaty ports like Hong Kong and Macau) gives a lot more detail, and really drills home why the century from 1840 to 1940 was a period of sustained national humiliation for the Chinese – it is in fact known as ‘the century of humiliation’ or ‘the hundred years of national humiliation’.

Basically, Westerners imposed an unceasing stream of treaties designed, initially, to create special trading cantonments on the coast, but which one by one encroached further inland, ensured Westerners were exempt from Chinese law (in effect, free to do what they wanted) and could force trade with the Chinese on unfavourable and biased terms.

Moreover, there were so many foreign nations each scrambling to get a piece of the action in China – most obviously trading basic commodities but also competing for the broader opportunities which opened up later in the 19th century, for example, building railways or setting up banks.

I hadn’t realised how many western countries queued up to get their slice of the action. I knew about the usual suspects – Britain with its powerful navy, and France encroaching up from its colony down in Indo-China i.e. Vietnam-Laos. But Bismarck’s unification of Germany in the 1870s announced the arrival of a new, more brutal competitor who was determined not to miss out in either Africa or China.

And Fenby makes clear that, more than all the others, the Chinese feared neighbouring Russia because of its steady expansion into Manchuria and the North of China:

The British, French and Germans were a constant irritant, but the Tsarist empire and its communist successor represented a much greater territorial threat to China. p.31

And above all, the Chinese should, of course, really have been most scared of Japan, another ‘divine empire’, which turned out to be by far its worst destroyer.

I was startled when Fenby gives the process the overall title ‘the Scramble for China’, since this is a term usually reserved for the European ‘Scramble for Africa’ – but as he piled example on example of the countless unequal trading deals, the intimidation of Chinese authorities with gunships and punitive armed raids by European armies, I came to realise how true it was, how carved up, humiliated and exploited China became – and so why getting rid of foreigners and foreign influence came to be such a dominating strand in the mindset of early 20th-century Chinese intellectuals and revolutionaries.

'China - the cake of kings and emperors' French political cartoon by Henri Meyer (1898)

‘China – the cake of kings and emperors’ French political cartoon by Henri Meyer (1898)

The ratcheting effect

A key element of the unequal treaties was the way each of the European nations was able to out-trump the others… and then all the others demanded parity. Some German missionaries were harmed in a remote province? Germany demanded reparations and increased trading rights. At which the British, French, Russians and Americans all demanded a similar ratcheting up of their rights and accessibility. Some British merchants were attacked in Canton? The British sent in gunboats, demanded reparations and the rights to entire industries – and all the other European nations then demanded parity or they’d send in their gunboats.

So it went on with an apparently endless ratcheting up of the legal and commercial privileges and the sums of cash demanded by the rapacious Europeans.

Unequal treaties

  • 1839 to 1842 The First Opium War leading to the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing – granted an indemnity and extraterritoriality to Britain, the opening of five treaty ports, and the cession of Hong Kong Island
  • 1844 The Treaty of Whampoa between France and China, which was signed by Théodore de Lagrené and Qiying on October 24, 1844, extended the same privileged trading terms to France as already exacted by Britain
  • 1845 The Treaty of Wanghia between China and the United States, signed on July 3, 1844 in the Kun Iam Temple.
  • 1856 to 1860 The Second Opium War pitting the British Empire and the French Empire against the Qing dynasty of China.
  • 1858 – British attack on Canton after Chinese sailors were arrested aboard a ship carrying the British flag. British houses were burned and a price put on the heads of foreigners. British forces secured Canton. British and French forces attacked Tienjin, the coastal area east of Beijing. The westerners marched on Beijing and burned down the emperor’s Summer Palace (1860), among the looters being Charles Gordon, later to make his name at Khartoum. In the final peace treaty the allies were paid a large indemnity, trading concessions and Russia was given 300,000 square miles of territory in the far north!
  • 1884 to 1885 The Sino-French War, also known as the Tonkin War, in which the French seized control of Tonkin (northern Vietnam).
  • 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki ending the first Sino-Japanese war cedes to Japan Taiwan, the Pescadores islands and the Liaodong Peninsula, along with an indemnity of 16.5 million pounds of silver as well as opening five coastal ports to Japanese trade.

Fenby’s account makes vividly and appallingly clear the treadmill of endless humiliation and dismemberment which educated Chinese felt their country was being remorselessly subject to. And the hypocrisy of the Western nations who went on about ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’, while all the time lining their pockets and showing no morality whatsoever.

Western advantages

All that said, the Chinese needed the West and Fenby (thankfully) paints a nuanced and complex picture. Just as not all Chinese were pigtailed ignoramuses, so not all Westerners were hypocritical exploiters. A shining example is Robert Hart, an Ulsterman from a poor family, who rose to become the head of the China’s Customs Service, just one of many Westerners employed by the imperial court for their (Western) knowledge and expertise. Hart ran the service from 1863 to 1911 and transformed it from a corrupt, antiquated and inefficient sinecure into a well-run organisation which ended up being one of the main contributors to imperial finances. He became a byword for honesty and dependability, and was awarded a number of China’s highest honours.

Hart’s story reminds us that it is a complicated world, then as now, and that many Westerners made significant contributions to China, establishing a range of businesses, banks, building railways, developing areas of the economy. If there was a lot of shameful gunboat diplomacy, there was also a lot of genuine collaboration and contribution.

Fleeing to the West

It is also notable the number of times that native Chinese reformers, dissidents, disgraced court officials and so on fled to the European ports to find sanctuary. Here they found law and order, cleanliness and hygiene which, if not perfect, were vastly superior to the dirt, zero plumbing and violence of their native China.

In 1912, as revolutionary violence swept China, many members of the Imperial court took refuge in the foreign compounds. After the Tiananmen Square ‘Massacre’ of June 1989, as many of the student leaders as could manage it fled abroad, most ending up in America, for example prominent student leader Chai Ling who went on to head up a successful internet company. Plus ca change…

The Japanese

‘As we entered the town of Port Arthur, we saw the head of a Japanese soldier displayed on a wooden stake. This filled us with rage and a desire to crush any Chinese soldier. Anyone we saw in the town, we killed. The streets were filled with corpses, so many they blocked our way. We killed people in their homes; by and large, there wasn’t a single house without from three to six dead. Blood was flowing and the smell was awful. We sent out search parties. We shot some, hacked at others. The Chinese troops just dropped their arms and fled. Firing and slashing, it was unbounded joy. At this time, our artillery troops were at the rear, giving three cheers [banzai] for the emperor.’
– Diary of Japanese soldier, Makio Okabe, describing the capture of Port Arthur, November 1894

Multiply this several million times to get the full impact of what it meant to be a neighbour of Imperial Japan in the first half of the twentieth century: Korea, Manchuria, mainland China all benefited from Japan’s goal of building a glorious Asian empire. This is described at great length in Rana Mitter’s history of the China-Japanese war and there are regular scenes of such stomach-churning violence as to make you want to throw up your last meal.

Maoist madness

The madness of the Mao Zedong era is described in my reviews of Frank Dikotter’s book:

But Fenby dwells at length on the paranoia and crazed whims of the Great Helmsman, with results that eclipse the horrors of the late Qing Empire. The famine which resulted from his Great Leap Forward policy (1958 to 1962) resulted in anything from 30 to 55 million deaths. And that’s before the separate category of deaths actively caused by the security forces implementing their brutal policy of forced collectivisation. Madness on an epic scale.

Plus ça change…

Countries are like people, they rarely change. The modern history of Chinese history is a fascinating case study. Again and again Fenby points out that certain patterns of behaviour recur and recur, the most notorious being the attempt to impose reform of Chinese society from the top, reform which threatens to get out of hand, and then is harshly repressed, followed by a period of harsh control. As predictable as a, b, c.

Thus his description of a) the attempted reforms of the Guangxu Emperor in 1898, which b) began to get out of hand c) were brought to an abrupt halt by the power behind the throne, the Dowager empress Cixi, eerily pre-echo a) Mao’s unleashing of revolutionary change from above in the Cultural Revolution b) which by the 1970s even the Mad Helmsman realised was getting out of hand and c) so he repressed.

Or the way the a) very mild liberal reforms begun by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s led to b) the unpredictable outburst of student protests in Tiananmen Square which the party hierarchy tolerated for a few weeks before c) brutally suppressing it. a, b, c.

To this day the rulers of China daren’t institute anything like real democracy because they know the chaos they would unleash, they remember the history of the Warlord Era, indeed the terrifyingly violent 20th century history history this book describes. Maybe such a vast and varied terrain, containing so many ethnicities and levels of economic development, can still only be managed by a really strong central authority?

And the more you read and learn about the Chinese history of the past century – the more you sympathise with them. Fenby’s long and gruelling narrative ends with the repeated conclusion that China’s rulers are as repressive as ever – indeed, given the arrival of the internet, they are able to practice surveillance and social control of their populations which previous dictators could only have dreamed of.

And yet they are all too aware that they are sitting astride a bubbling cauldron of vast social inequality, political corruption, popular resentment, ethnic division (most obvious in Tibet and Xinjiang but present among a hundred other ethnic minorities), and the pressures and strains caused by creating a dynamic go-head 21st century economy controlled by a fossilised, top-down, 20th century Leninist political structure.

This is an extraordinarily insightful and horrifying book. Anybody who reads it will have their knowledge of China hugely increased and their opinion of China and the Chinese irreparably damaged.


Other reviews about China

The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikötter (2013)

People were encouraged to transform themselves into what the communists called ‘New People’. Everywhere, in government offices, factories, workshops, schools and universities, they were ‘re-educated’ and made to study newspapers and textbooks, learning the right answers, the right ideas and the right slogans. While the violence abated after a few years, thought reform never ended, as people were compelled to scrutinise their every belief, suppressing the transitory impressions that might reveal hidden bourgeois thoughts behind a mask of social conformity. Again and again, in front of assembled crowds or in study sessions under strict supervision, they had to write confessions, denounce their friends, justify their past activities and answer questions about their political reliability. (p.xiii)

For three-quarters of the twentieth century (from the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 to the death of Mao in 1976) China was the site of enormous turmoil, war, famine, tyranny and suffering.

Frank Dikötter is a Dutch historian, professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong, formerly of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. In the last twenty years China has become easier to visit and has opened many of its historical archives to academics for the first time. Dikötter has taken advantage of this to spend years researching provincial records and archives hitherto unseen by western historians. This research has resulted in a trilogy of books detailing the first three decades of communist party rule in China:

  1. The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Communist Revolution, 1945–1957 (2013)
  2. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62 (2010)
  3. The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976 (2016)

The general drift of all three books is that communist rule in China was much, much more repressive, bungling and catastrophic for the people of China than previously thought.

The centrepiece of the trilogy is the second book, about the great famine of 1958-62, which charges that it was much more consciously and deliberately engineered by the communist leadership (i.e. Mao) lasted longer (1958-62), and resulted in more deaths from starvation, than previously estimated.

Dikötter gives the figure of 45 million premature deaths, of which between two and three million were victims of political repression i.e. people beaten or tortured to death or executed for political reasons.

The famine book won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2011 and was widely praised for the originality of its research, though it is not without its critics who consider the numbers inflated. No-one doubts, however, that Mao’s communist party oversaw the greatest mass death event in human history.

The Tragedy of Liberation is the second to be published in the trilogy, but covers the earlier period, setting the scene for the famine story by recounting the end of the War in the Pacific (1945), the eruption of civil war between China’s Nationalists and Communists (1946), and the eventual victory of the latter, announced in 1949.

Chinese communist party poster depicting Chairman Mao Zedong

Chinese communist party poster depicting Chairman Mao Zedong

Timeline of the Chinese civil war

  • 6 and 9 August 1945 – the United States drops atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • 8 August – Stalin declares war on Japan and Soviet troops invade Manchuria. America sends hundreds of shiploads of lend-lease material and food to Siberia to support the Russians, including 500 Sherman tanks.
  • 21 August 1945 – A formal surrender between China and Japan ends the Second World War in the Pacific. Japan’s 1 million soldiers in China lay down their arms. The American army undertakes a massive airlift of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist troops to all China’s main cities to take over from them, before the communists get there.
  • April 1946 – Soviet troops withdraw from Manchuria, having stripped it bare down to the last lightbulb and bath plug (p.15), and having helped Mao’s communist army take control of most of Manchuria.
  • June 1946 – Nationalists undertake a massive military campaign against the communists in Manchuria. The communists are saved by George Marshall, President Truman’s envoy, who insists on a ceasefire, allowing the communists to regroup and get more training and supplies from the Soviets (p.16).
  • September 1946 – July 1947 – US President Harry Truman, disillusioned with the corruption and maladministration of Chiang’s nationalists, imposes an arms embargo which – since the communists are receiving ample supplies and training from Russia – has the effect of boosting the communist army.
  • December 1946 to December 1947 – Nationalists pump their forces into Manchuria in a bid to crush the communists who, better armed and trained than before, turn Manchuria into a killing field wiping out repeated waves of Nationalist forces.
  • November 1948 – The communists succeed in capturing all of Manchuria after blockading and starving several major cities. Civilian deaths due to starvation run into the hundreds of thousands.
  • January 1949 – The communist army, now known as the People’s Liberation Army, much reinforced and battle-hardened, heads south out of Manchuria. On 22 January Beijing surrenders to the PLA. In the same month the nationalists lose the battle of Xizhou in central China, exposing the huge Yangtse valley to communist takeover.
  • May 1949 – Nanjing, the nationalist capital of the south bank of the Yangzi, falls to the PLA. After a lengthy siege Shanghai, financial capital of China, falls to the communists.
  • October 1 1949 – Mao declares the People’s Republic of China in Tiananmen Square.
  • December 1949 – Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and the remnants of his forces flee to the island of Taiwan, to this day an independent nation which China refuses to recognise. Realising their man had failed, the Americans were resigned to the eventual fall of Taiwan as well, but the situation was transformed with the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, when Chinese-backed North Korean forces invaded American-backed South Korea. America rallied the United Nations in a bid to create a coalition to repel the North Koreans and this spilled over into supporting Chiang, so that Taiwan’s nationalists were ensured of survival.

Mass deaths

The civil war involved a number of sieges of nationalist cities during which large number of civilians were deliberately starved to death. The six-month siege of Changchun resulted in between 150,000 and 300,000 civilian deaths. The massive Huaihai campaign resulted in at least 500,000 deaths on the nationalist side.

Dikötter’s text is larded (rather like Max Hasting’s history of the Pacific War, Nemesis) with eyewitness and first-hand accounts from all sources, civilians, peasants, students, soldiers on both sides and politicians. The overall impression is of death and destruction on a grand scale.

The communists in power

Dikötter’s book is a remorseless catalogue of the horrors of the civil war interspersed with the tyrannical policies of the narrow-minded, economically illiterate dictatorship. One of the clearest themes is that the communists achieved and maintained power through HATE at all levels. Categories of enemies were invented and then ‘discovered’ lurking at all levels of society.

An example he explains in detail is persecution of landlords. In Chinese the word landlord itself is an import from the Japanese language, because the thing itself was relatively rare. Dikötter shows that land in China was alienable i.e sellable, and was held by peasants and families under complex and highly detailed traditional contracts which also varied across the regions of China. But landlords, who owned land and raked off a profit by renting it to peasants, were relatively rare. Serfdom, on the Russian model, didn’t exist at all. But this didn’t stop Mao’s campaign to eradicate ‘landlords’ and so each province, region and local area was given quotas of landlords to identify and eradicate. With a gun in their hand and the ability to do whatever they liked, communist cadres across the country listened to the venomous vendettas which infest all rural communities, dragging unpopular villagers and their families in front of hurried kangaroo courts, where victims were abused and insulted before being showered in filth and, variously, shot immediately, beheaded, or flayed with knives, buried alive in sand or mud, hanged upside down or burned to death. Hundreds of thousands of peasants died this way and their – generally pitifully small – stocks of goods redistributed among the villagers. Obviously this didn’t lead to any particular improvement in agricultural production, in fact the disorder across the country disrupted resources, plans and distribution, so led to a drop in agricultural production.

But this is only one thread in the great tapestry of destruction. Another was the campaign against the ‘bourgeoisie’ in the cities, namely Nanjing and Shanghai. Once secure in the hands of the communists a curfew was imposed. Bars and nightclubs closed down. Decadent shops were closed down. Banks were nationalised. Capital could only be allotted by communist party cadres who were economically illiterate. Stocks and supplies ran short and so factories switched to part time work before closing down. Thousands of workers saw pay cuts and then were made unemployed. Convinced this was a conspiracy of reactionaries to discredit the party, the communist authorities took tighter control of the population, issuing identity cards and other papers, classifying every citizen into a series of categories e.g. student, professional, worker, peasant, with the workers and peasants in theory being the most advantaged. As the economic situation worsened, the communist authorities reacted with the only tool at their disposal, fear and terror, with increasing sweeps rounding up members of suspect professions and taking them for interrogation and torture and often execution.

In this and numerous other ways Dikötter’s book relentlessly catalogues the way the economically illiterate communists, blinded by the purity of their utopian doctrine, were forced to use the only strategy and language they understood, fear which was achieved by whipping up hysterical hatred of traitors, saboteurs, counter-revolutionaries, reactionaries, landlords, the bourgeoisie, intellectuals, and so on. These categories covered just about everyone, thus allowing the authorities to arrest and torture anyone into making confessions implicating strings of other people who were themselves tortured to confess, and so on.

‘You dare not speak with others about what was on your mind, even with those close to you, because it was very likely that they would denounce you. Everybody was denouncing others and was denounced by others. Everybody was living in fear.’ (Liu Xiayou, quoted on page 183)

Dikötter presents the evidence and estimates that the number of people killed in the first Great Terror, from 1950 to 1952, might be around 2 million. There were to be more waves of terror, many more. Two striking features of them are that:

  1. Mao’s orders which triggered these waves were always deliberately vague – this meant that cadres trying to carry them out tended to give them the broadest interpretation and arrest everyone, just in case.
  2. This was exacerbated by the use of quotas. Mao casually estimated that 1 in a 1,000 of each populated area should probably be executed. Once these orders were distributed to the cadres, they vied to gain the Chairman’s favour by exceeding the quota. Like quotas for steel or wheat production these were just more statistics to be reached and exceeded, the quicker the better. Authorities in different regions interpreted the lax definitions to suit themselves, and executed whichever groups were easily available and/or disliked, including ethnic minorities, petty criminals, anyone with any mark of suspicion against them.

Max Hasting’s history of the Pacific War, Nemesis, is made bearable because, amid all the unspeakable Japanese atrocities, we meet Americans and English who are, basically, humane and kindly. There are moments of light, reason and humanity. Dikötter’s book is almost impossible to read because of the stifling sense that the reader is trapped in a totally repressed society, where absolutely everyone lives in fear all the time that the slightest remark, look, or even thought could lead to their arbitrary arrest, torture and execution – where brutality is ubiquitous. There are no reports of anyone being forgiving, kind or generous. It is a landscape of unrelenting tyranny, fear and violence.

In the campaign against ‘corruption’ in the early 1950s, suspects had their hair pulled, heads forced into toilets, forced to squat with kettles of boiling water on their head, forced to strip, were beaten and whipped, were made to stand naked in snow, were paraded through the streets to be jeered and spat at, forced to kneel in hot ashes, beaten with ropes (p.162), forced to kneel on benches or to remain bent over for hours, stripped and forced into vats of freezing water, bound with leg irons, beaten with bamboo sticks, tied hand and foot and forced to make confessions in front of mass rallies,

‘Denunciation boxes’ were placed in every office so citizens could denounce each other. Lorries patrolled the streets with loudspeakers insulting the corrupt bourgeoisie and enemies of the workers.

During this period up to 4 million government employees were hounded like this, many committing suicide. Dikötter devotes some pages to describing the suicide techniques of those hounded beyond endurance. Again, Mao came up with a scientific quota: 1% of suspects should be shot, 1% sent to labour camps for life, 2-3% sentenced to ten years hard labour.

Speak Bitterness Meetings

Timeline of communist repression

‘Socialism must have a dictatorship, it will not work without it.’
(Mao Zedong, quoted page 237)

  • 1942 – With the war far from won, and the communists facing a far stronger nationalist enemy, behind the lines Mao institutes a purge of his own communist party, named the ‘Rectification campaign’. Every member of the communist party, including the highest leadership, had to write an autobiography, produce self-criticisms, confess to past errors and ask the party’s forgiveness. By 1944 15,000 spies and traitors had been unmasked, tortured and executed.
  • 1950-52 – The communists implement land reform in the south.
  • October 1950 – October 1951 – The Great Terror, known as the ‘Campaign to Suppress Counter-Revolutionaries’ leads, apart from the murder and intimidation of millions, to an explosion in the prison population and the creation of a chain of forced labour camps (pp.243-254).
  • 1951-53 – Land having been redistributed, peasants are organised into ‘mutual aid teams’.
  • October 1951 – the campaign to purge the civil service begins, alongside a thought-reform campaign to indoctrinate the educated elite into communist ideology.
  • 1952 – Mao declares war on the private sector in the ‘Five Anti Campaign’.
  • 5 March 1953 – Josef Stalin dies.
  • Spring 1953 – As a result of state-imposed communalisation of agriculture, productivity plummets and large swathes of the country experience famine, people resort to eating grass, leaves and bark, with case of children being sold for food.
  • 27 July 1953 – Ceasefire halts the Korean War.
  • November 1953 – The communist state imposes a state monopoly on grain. The state set the amount to be grown in each region (often wildly optimistic), confiscated it all, returned a fraction (a starvation rations) to the farmers, while confiscating the rest to a) feed the cities b) export to Russia in exchange for industrial goods and weapons. The result was starvation across the country, mixed with open rebellion which was put down with maximum violence.
  • 1953-55 – Peasant mutual aid teams are transformed into fully fledged communes which share all tool, animals and labour. In effect, country workers become serfs in bondage to local communist leaders.
  • 1954 – Senior communist leaders are purged for treachery and splittism. More than 770,000 people are arrested in a campaign against counter-revolutionaries.
  • June 1955 – For the third spring in a row famine struck the collectivised countryside and millions of starving peasants flocked to the cities as beggars. So Premier Zhou Enlai announced the extension of the urban system of ‘household registration’ to the countryside, to tie rural workers to their villages.
  • 1955-56 – The ‘Socialist High Tide’ campaign accelerates collectivisation in the countryside and nationalisation of industry in towns. In July 1955 about 14% of China’s 120 million rural families were members of a co-operative; by May 1956, more than 90% were members. Dikötter sees this as the final step in the systematic reduction of China’s rural population to landless serfs tied to the state. It is accompanied by widespread violence, terror and intimidation. In the cities 800,000 owners of businesses, large or small, were deprived of their property and overnight became dependent on the whim of local party officials.
  • February 1956 – Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gives his famous speech denouncing Stalin and the ‘cult of the leader’. This bolsters Mao’s critics in the Chinese communist leadership. The ‘Socialist High Tide’ campaign is abandoned.
  • October 1956 – Encouraged by Kruschev’s speech and resulting deStalinisation, the people of Hungary revolt against the communist government. After some hesitation, the Soviets invade, crush all opposition, and impose a new, tougher regime, sending hundreds of thousands of Hungarians to labour camps.
  • Winter 1956-spring 1957 – In a response to Kruschev’s speech and deStalinisation, Mao institutes the ‘Hundred Flowers’ campaign, a more open political climate designed to avoid the overflow of protest seen in Hungary. But it goes too far, leading to a wave of student protest and strikes across the country, at which point, in the summer of 1957, Mao reverses the policy and puts Deng Xiaoping in charge of an anti-rightist campaign. This reaction persecutes up to half a million students and intellectuals, many of them packed off to gulags in the countryside to do hard labour for the rest of their lives.
  • 1957 – The communist party re-establishes its authority and rallies around the Great Leader. He prepares to declare the ‘Great Leap Forward’, which will lead to four years of famine and the greatest man-made disaster in human history, and which is the subject of the second book in the trilogy.
A peasant 'landlord' confesses all before a People's Tribunal moments before being shot (July 1952)

A peasant ‘landlord’ confesses before a People’s Tribunal moments before being executed (July 1952)

How to run a Maoist hate campaign

The first step is to declare that there is a ‘struggle’ or ‘war’ in society between the virtuous and the wicked. We must all be vigilant and watch each other and report anti-social actions or words, or even funny looks. Children must report their parents. Culprits must be ‘called out’ on their anti-social activity and brought before a mass meeting where they must confess their crimes and beg for mercy. They must reflect on their past behaviour and pledge to become a ‘New Person’, promising to dress, think and talk like everyone else, and be unstinting in their praise of the New World and the Wise Leader. The correct climate of fear has been established when everyone is nervous of being ‘named and shamed’ for the slightest slip or error. And anyone speaking up for a bourgeois deviant and enemy of the people will, of course, themselves immediately be proved guilty by association: why else would they defend the guilty?

Thus is a society atomised, making everyone fearful of everyone else, restricting conversation to the blandest generalities. It is important to have a large vocabulary of hate but to be vague about definitions, so that the maximum number of people can be caught by one term of abuse or another.

Thus the Chinese communists castigated ‘the enemy’ as, among other terms, a:

  • backward element
  • bourgeois
  • bourgeois idealist
  • bourgeois sentimentalist
  • capitalist roader
  • Chiang Kai-shek roader
  • counter-revolutionary
  • degenerate
  • decadent
  • deviant element
  • exploiter
  • go-it-aloner
  • hoarder
  • hooligan
  • humanist
  • hypocrite
  • individualist
  • kulak
  • lackey
  • landlord
  • middle-of-the-roader
  • reactionary
  • rightist
  • right deviationist
  • running dog of imperialism
  • saboteur
  • schemer
  • servant of imperialism
  • speculator
  • spy
  • swindler

Dikötter’s conclusion

‘The first decade of Maoism was one of the worst tyrannies in the history of the twentieth century, sending to an early grave at least 5 million civilians and bringing misery to countless more.’ (p.xv)

Credit

The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikötter was published by Bloomsbury Books in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2014 paperback edition.


Related links

Related reviews

%d bloggers like this: