Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson (2014) and multi-ethnic societies

Mutual suspicion, brinkmanship, arrogance, belligerence and, above all fear were rife in the halls of power across Europe in the summer of 1914. (p.8)

I’m very surprised that this book won the ‘2014 Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History’ and the ‘Society of Military History 2015 Distinguished Book Award’ because it is not really a military history at all.

It’s certainly an epic book – 788 pages, if you include the 118 pages of notes and 63 pages of bibliography – and it gives an impressively thorough account of the origins, development and conclusion of the First World War, as seen from the point of view of the politicians, military leaders and people of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

More social than military history

But I found it much more of a sociological and economic history of the impact of war on German and Austro-Hungarian society, than a narrative of military engagements.

Watson gives a broad outline of the German invasion of Belgium and northern France, but there are no maps and no description of any of the vital battles, of the Marne or Aisnes or Arras or Ypres. Instead he spends more time describing the impact on Belgian society of the burning of villages and the atrocities carried out by the Germans – in retaliation for what they claimed were guerrilla and francs-tireurs (free-shooter) attacks by civilian snipers.

I was specifically hoping to learn more about the famous three-week-long battle of Tannenberg between Germany and Russia on the Eastern Front, but there is no account of it at all in this book.

Instead Watson gives a detailed description of the impact on society in Galicia and East Prussia of the ruinous and repressive Russian advance. Little or nothing about the fighting, but a mass of detail about the impact on individual villages, towns and cities of being subject to Russian military administration and violence, and a lot about the impact of war on the region’s simmering ethnic tensions. I hadn’t realised that the Russians, given half a chance, carried out as many atrocities (i.e. massacring civilians) and far more forced movements of population, than the Germans did.

Watson does, it is true, devote some pages to the epic battle of Verdun (pp. 293-300) and to the Battle of the Somme (pp. 310-326), but it’s not what I’d call a military description. There are, for example no maps of either battlefield. In fact there are no battlefield maps – maps showing the location of a battle and the deployment of opposing forces – anywhere at all in the book.

Instead, what you do get is lots of graphs and diagrams describing the social and economic impact of war – showing things like ‘Crime rates in Germany 1913-18’, ‘Free meals dispensed at Viennese soup kitchens 1914-18’, ‘German psychiatric casualties in the First and Second Armies 1914-18’ (p.297) and so on. Social history.

Longer than the accounts of Verdun and the Somme put together is his chapter about the food shortages which began to be felt soon after the war started and reached catastrophic depths during the ‘Turnip Winter’ of 1916-17. These shortages were caused by the British naval blockade (itself, as Watson points out, of dubious legality under international law), but also due to the intrinsic shortcomings of German and Austro-Hungarian agriculture, compounded by government inefficiency, and corruption (all described in immense detail on pages 330-374).

So there’s more about food shortages than about battles. Maybe, in the long run, the starvation was more decisive. Maybe Watson would argue that there are hundreds of books devoted to Verdun and the Somme, whereas the nitty-gritty of the food shortages – much more important in eventually forcing the Central Powers to their knees – is something you rarely come across in British texts. He certainly gives a fascinating, thorough and harrowing account.

But it’s not military history. It’s social and economic history.

A lot later in the book Watson gives a gripping account of the German offensive of spring 1918, and then the Allied counter-offensive from July 1918 which ended up bringing the Central Powers to the negotiating table.

But in both instances it’s a very high-level overview, and he only gives enough detail to explain (fascinatingly) why the German offensive failed and the Allied one succeeded – because his real motivation, the meat of his analysis, is the social and political impact of the military failure on German and Austrian society.

Absence of smaller campaigns

Something else I found disappointing about the book was his neglect of military campaigns even a little outside his main concern with German and Austro-Hungarian society.

He gives a thrilling account of the initial Austrian attack on Serbia – which was, after all, the trigger for the whole war – and how the Austrians were, very amusingly, repelled back to their starting points.

But thereafter Serbia is more or less forgotten about and the fact that Serbia was later successfully invaded is skated over in a sentence. Similarly, although the entry of Italy into the war is mentioned, none of the actual fighting between Austria and Italy is described. There is only one reference to Romania being successfully occupied, and nothing at all about Bulgaria until a passing mention of her capitulation in 1918.

I had been hoping that the book would give an account of the First World War in the East, away from the oft-told story of the Western Front: the war in Poland and Galicia and the Baltic States he does cover, but in south-eastern Europe nothing.

The text – as the title, after all, indicates – is pretty ruthlessly focused on the military capabilities, mobilisation, economy and society of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Ethnic tension

If there’s one theme which does emerge very clearly from this very long book it is the centrality of ethnic and nationalist divisions in the Central Powers themselves, and in the way they treated their conquered foes.

Throughout its examination of the impact of war on German and Austro-Hungarian society – on employment, women’s roles, propaganda, agriculture and industry, popular culture and so on – the book continually reverts to an examination of the ethnic and nationalist fracture lines which ran through these two states.

For example, in the food chapter, there are not only radical differences in the way the German and Austro-Hungarian authorities dealt with the crisis (the effectiveness of different rationing schemes, and so on) but we are shown how different national regions, particularly of Austria-Hungary, refused to co-operate with each other: for example, rural Hungary refusing to share its food with urban Austria.

What emerges, through repeated description and analysis, is the very different ethnic and nationalist nature of the two empires.

Germany

Germany was an ethnically homogeneous state, made up overwhelmingly of German-speaking ethnic Germans. Therefore the fractures – the divisions which total war opened up – tended to take place along class lines. Before the war the Social Democrat Party (much more left-wing than its name suggests) had been the biggest socialist party in Europe, heir to the legacy of Karl Marx which was, admittedly, much debated and squabbled over. However, when war came, Watson shows how, in a hundred different ways, German society closed ranks in a patriotic display of unity so that the huge and powerful SDP, after some debate, rejected its pacifist wing and united with all the other parties in the Reichstag in voting for the war credits which the Chancellor asked for.

Watson says contemporary Germans called this the Burgfrieden spirit of the time, meaning literally ‘castle peace politics’. In effect it meant a political policy of ‘party truce’, all parties rallying to the patriotic cause, trades unions agreeing not to strike, socialist parties suspending their campaign to bring down capitalism, and so on. All reinforced by the sense that the Germans were encircled by enemies and must all pull together.

Typical of Watson’s social-history approach to all this is his account of the phenomenon of Liebesgaben or ‘love gifts’ (pp.211-214), the hundreds of thousands of socks and gloves and scarves knitted and sent to men at the front by the nation’s womenfolk, and the role played by children in war charities and in some war work.

He has three or four pages about the distinctive development of ‘nail sculptures’, figures of soldiers or wartime leaders into which all citizens in a town were encouraged to hammer a nail while making a donation to war funds. Soon every town and city had these nail figures, focuses of patriotic feeling and fundraising (pp. 221-225).

Watson is much more interested by the impact of war on the home front than by military campaigns.

Austria-Hungary

The spirit of unity which brought Germany together contrasts drastically with the collapse along ethnic lines of Austria-Hungary, the pressures which drove the peoples of the empire apart.

The Empire was created as a result of the Compromise of 1867 by which the Austrians had one political arrangement, the Hungarians a completely different one, and a whole host of lesser ethnicities and identities (the Czechs, and Poles in the north, the Serbs and Greeks and Croats and Bosnians in the troublesome south) jostled for recognition and power for their own constituencies.

Watson’s introductory chapters give a powerful sense of the fear and anxiety stalking the corridors of power in the Austro-Hungarian Empire well before the war began. This fear and anxiety were caused by the succession of political and military crises of the Edwardian period – the Bosnia Crisis of 1908, the First and Second Balkan Wars of 1911 and 1912, the rising voices of nationalism among Czechs in the north and Poles in the East.

To really understand the fear of the ruling class you have to grasp that in 1914 there was a very clear league table of empires – with Britain at the top followed by France and Germany. The rulers of Austria-Hungary were petrified that the collapse and secession of any part of their heterogenous empire would relegate them to the second division of empires (as were the rulers of Russia, as well).

And everybody knew what happened to an empire on the slide: they had before them the examples of the disintegrating Ottoman and powerless Chinese empires, which were condemned to humiliation and impotence by the Great Powers. Austria-Hungary’s rulers would do anything to avoid that fate.

But Watson shows how, as soon as war broke out, the empire instead of pulling together, as Germany had, began dividing and splitting into its component parts. Vienna was forced to cede control of large regions of the empire to the local governments which were best placed to mobilise the war effort among their own peoples.

This tended to have two consequences:

  1. One was to encourage nationalism and the rise of nationalist leaders in these areas (it was via wartime leadership of the Polish Legions, a force encouraged by Vienna, that Józef Piłsudski consolidated power and the authority which would enable him to establish an independent Poland in 1918, and successfully defend its borders against Russian invasion in 1920, before becoming Poland’s strongman in the interwar period).
  2. The second was to encourage inter-ethnic tension and violence.

The difference between homegeneous Germany and heterogeneous Austria-Hungary is exemplified in the respective nations’ responses to refugees. In Germany, the 200,000 or so refugees from Russia’s blood-thirsty invasion of East Prussia were distributed around the country and welcomed into homes and communities all over the Reich. They were recipients of charity from a popular refugee fund which raised millions of marks for them. Even when the refugees were in fact Polish-speaking or Lithuanians, they were still treated first and foremost as Germans and all received as loyal members of the Fatherland (pp. 178-181).

Compare and contrast the German experience with the bitter resentment which greeted refugees from the Russian invasion of the Austro-Hungarian border region of Galicia. When some 1 million refugees from Galicia were distributed round the rest of the empire, the native Hungarians, Austrians or Czechs all resented having large number of Poles, Ruthenians and, above all, Jewish, refugees imposed on their communities. There was resentment and outbreaks of anti-refugee violence.

The refugee crisis was just one of the ways in which the war drove the nationalities making up the Austro-Hungarian empire further apart (pp. 198-206).

Two years ago I read and was appalled by Timothy Snyder’s book, Bloodlands, which describes the seemingly endless ethnic cleansing and intercommunal massacres, pogroms and genocides which took place in the area between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s.

Watson’s book shows how many of these tensions existed well before the First World War – in the Balkans they went back centuries – but that it was the massive pan-European conflict which lifted the lid, which authorised violence on an unprecedented scale, and laid the seeds for irreconcilable hatreds, particularly between Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians and Jews.

The perils of multi-ethnic societies

Although I bet Watson is a fully paid-up liberal (and his book makes occasional gestures towards the issue of ‘gender’, one of the must-have topics which all contemporary humanities books have to include), nonetheless the net effect of these often harrowing 566 pages of text is to make the reader very nervous about the idea of a multinational country.

1. Austria-Hungary was a rainbow nation of ethnicities and, under pressure, it collapsed into feuding and fighting nationalities.

2. Russia, as soon as it invaded East Prussia and Galicia, began carrying out atrocities against entire ethnic groups classified as traitors or subversives, hanging entire villages full of Ukrainians or Ruthenians, massacring Jewish populations.

3. The to and fro of battle lines in the Balkans allowed invading forces to decimate villages and populations of rival ethnic groups who they considered dangerous or treacherous.

Austro-Hungarian troops hanging unarmed Serbian civilians (1915)

Austro-Hungarian troops hanging unarmed Serbian civilians (1915) No doubt ‘spies’ and ‘saboteurs’

In other words, everywhere that you had a mix of ethnicities in a society put under pressure, you got voices raised blaming ‘the other’, blaming whichever minority group comes to hand, for the catastrophe which was overtaking them.

Unable to accept the objective truth that their armies and military commanders were simply not up to winning the war, the so-called intelligentsia of Austria-Hungary, especially right-wing newspapers, magazines, writers and politicians, declared that the only reason they were losing must be due to the sabotage and treachery of traitors, spies, saboteurs and entire ethnic groups, who were promptly declared ‘enemies of the state’.

Just who was blamed depended on which small powerless group was ready to hand, but the Jews tended to be a minority wherever they found themselves, and so were subjected to an increasing chorus of denunciation throughout the empire.

Ring of Steel is a terrible indictment of the primitive xenophobia and bloodlust of human nature. But it is also a warning against the phenomenon that, in my opinion, has been ignored by generations of liberal politicians and opinion-formers in the West.

For several generations we have been told by all official sources of information, government, ministires, and all the media, that importing large groups of foreigners can only be a good thing, which ‘enriches’ our rainbow societies. Maybe, at innumerable levels, it does.

But import several million ‘foreigners’, with different coloured skins, different languages, cultures and religions into Western Europe – and then place the societies of the West under great economic and social strain thanks to an epic crash of the financial system and…

You get the rise of right-wing, sometimes very right-wing, nationalist parties – in Russia, in Poland, in Hungary, in Germany, in Sweden and Denmark, in Italy, in France, in Britain and America – all demanding a return to traditional values and ethnic solidarity.

I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, I’m just saying the evidence seems to be that human beings are like this. This is what we do. You and I may both wish it wasn’t so, but it is so.

In fact I’d have thought this was one of the main lessons of history. You can’t look at the mass destruction of the Napoleonic Wars and say – ‘Well at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the appalling suffering created by industrialisation and say, ‘Well at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the mind-blowing racist attitudes I’ve been reading about in the American Civil War and say, ‘Well, at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the mad outbreak of violence of the First World War and the stubborn refusal to give in which led to over ten million men being slaughtered and say – ‘Well, at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the Holocaust and say – ‘Well, at least we’re not like that any more’.

We cannot be confident that human nature has changed at all in the intervening years.

Because in just the last twenty years we have all witnessed the savagery of the wars in former Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide, the genocide in Darfur, the failure of the Arab Springs and the civil wars in Syria and Libya, the 9/11 attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of ISIS, the war in Yemen, the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar prove.

If all these conflicts prove anything, they prove that —

WE ARE STILL LIKE THAT

We are just like that. Nothing has changed. Given half a chance, given enough deprivation, poverty and fear, human beings in any continent of the world will lash out in irrational violence which quickly becomes total, genocidal, scorched earth, mass destruction.

In the West, in Britain, France, Germany or America, we like to think we are different. That is just a form of racism. In my opinion, we are not intrinsically different at all. We are just protected by an enormous buffer of wealth and consumer goods from having to confront our basest nature. The majority of the populations in all the Western nations are well off enough not to want, or to allow, any kind of really ethnically divisive politics or inter-ethnic violence to take hold.

Or are they?

Because creating multi-cultural societies has created the potential for serious social stress to exacerbate racial, ethnic and nationalist dividing lines which didn’t previously exist. When I was growing up there was no such thing as ‘Islamophobia’ in Britain. 40 years later there are some 2.8 million Muslims in Britain, some 5% of the population – and I read about people being accused of ‘Islamophobia’, or Muslims claiming unfair discrimination or treatment in the media, almost every day in the newspapers.

It’s not as if we didn’t know the risks. I lived my entire life in the shadow of ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland which were based entirely on ethnic or communal hatred. And now not a day goes past without a newspaper article bewailing how Brexit might end the Good Friday Agreement and bring back the men of violence. Is the peace between the ethnic groups in Northern Ireland really that fragile? Apparently so. But British governments and the mainland population have always had an uncanny ability to sweep Ulster under the carpet and pretend it’s not actually part of the UK. To turn our backs on 40 years of bombings and assassinations, to pretend that it all, somehow, wasn’t actually happening in Britain. Not the real Britain, the Britain that counts. But it was.

Anyway, here we are. Over the past 40 years or so, politicians and opinion makers from all parties across the Western world have made this multicultural bed and now we’re all going to have to lie in it, disruptive and troubled though it is likely to be, for the foreseeable future.

Conclusion

Although it certainly includes lots of detail about the how the societies of the Central Powers were mobilised and motivated to wage total war, and enough about the military campaigns to explain their impact on the home front, overall Watson’s book is not really a military history of the Central Powers at war, but much more a social and economic history of the impact of the war on the two empires of its title.

And in the many, many places where he describes ethnic and nationalist tensions breaking out into unspeakable violence, again and again, all over central and eastern Europe, Watson’s book – no doubt completely contrary to his intentions – can very easily be read as a manifesto against the notion of a multicultural, multi-ethnic society.


Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport (2008)

1848 became known as ‘the year of revolutions’ and ‘the springtime of nations’ because there was political turmoil, fighting and unrest right across Europe, resulting in ministries and monarchies being toppled and new nation states proclaimed.

Causes

The underlying causes were agricultural, economic and demographic.

1. Agricultural failure

From 1845 onwards grain harvests across Europe were poor, and this was exacerbated when the fallback crop, potatoes, were hit by a destructive blight or fungal infection which turned them to mush in the soil. The result of the potato blight in Ireland is estimated to have been one and a half million deaths, but right across Europe peasants and small farmers starved, often to death. Hence the grim nickname for the decade as a whole, ‘the Hungry Forties’.

2. Economic downturn

This all coincided with an economic downturn resulting from industrial overproduction, particularly in the textile industry. Textile workers and artisans were thrown out of work in all Europe’s industrialised areas – the north of England, the industrial regions of Belgium, Paris and south-east France, the Rhineland of Germany, around Vienna and in western Bohemia.

3. Population boom

Hunger and unemployment impacted a population which had undergone a significant increase since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Countryside and cities alike had seen a population explosion.

The surplus of population was across all classes: it’s easy to see how an excess of many mouths to feed in a countryside hit by bad harvests, or in towns hit by economic depression, would result in misery and unrest. A bit more subtle was the impact of rising population on the middle classes: there just weren’t enough nice professional jobs to go round. Everyone wanted to be a doctor or lawyer or to secure a comfortable sinecure in the labyrinthine bureaucracies of the autocracies – but there just weren’t enough vacant positions. And so this created a surplus of disaffected, well-educated, middle-class young men who found roles to play in the new liberal and radical political movements.

If the surplus poor provided the cannon fodder in the streets, the surplus professional men provided the disaffected theoreticians and politicians of liberal reform and nationalism.

Inadequate response

As usual, the politicians in charge across Europe didn’t fully understand the scale of the poverty and distress they were dealing with and chose the time-honoured method of trying to repress all and any expressions of protest by main force.

Rapport’s book describes massacres in cities all across Europe as the garrisons were called out and soldiers shot on marching protesters in capital cities from Paris to Prague. This had an inevitable radicalising effect on the protesting masses who set up barricades and called on more of their fellow workers-urban poor to join them, and so on in a vicious circle.

However, these three underlying problems (population, hunger, slump) and the repressive response by all the authorities to almost any kind of protest, did not lead to one unified political movement of reform in each country. Instead the most important fact to grasp is that the opposition was split into different camps which, at the moments of severe crisis formed uneasy coalitions, but as events developed, tended to fall apart and even come to oppose each other.

There were at least three quite distinct strands of political opposition in 1848.

1. Liberalism

Of the big five states in 1840s Europe – Britain, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia – only France and Britain had anything remotely like a ‘democracy’, and even in these countries the number of people allowed to vote was pitifully small – 170,000 of the richest men in France, representing just 0.5% of the population, compared to the 800,000 who were enfranchised by the 1832 Reform Act in Britain (allowing about one in five adult British men the vote).

Despite the small electorates, both Britain and France at least had well-established traditions of ‘civil society’, meaning newspapers, magazines, universities, debating clubs and societies, the theatre, opera and a variety of other spaces where views could be aired and debated.

This was drastically untrue of the three other big powers – Prussia, Austria and Russia had no parliaments and no democracies. They were reactionary autocracies, ruled by hereditary rulers who chose ministers merely to advise them and to carry out their wishes, these moustachioed old reactionaries being Czar Nicholas I of Russia, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria and Frederick William IV of Prussia.

Therefore, while liberals in Britain merely wanted to expand the franchise a bit, and even the radicals were only calling for complete manhood suffrage (encapsulated in ‘the Great Charter’ which gave the movement of ‘Chartism’ its name and whose collection and presentation to Parliament amounted to the main political event of the year in Britain) and whereas in France liberals wanted to see expansion of the suffrage and the removal of repressive elements of the regime (censorship) – in the three autocracies, liberals were fighting to create even a basic public space for discussion, and a basic level of democracy, in highly censored and repressive societies.

In other words, the situation and potential for reform in these two types of nation were profoundly different.

But to summarise, what marked out liberals across the continent is that they wanted constitutional and legal change, effected through what the Italians called the lotta legale, a legal battle (p.43).

2. Nationalism

Sometimes overlapping with liberal demands, but basically different in ambition, were the continent’s nationalists. Italy and Germany are the obvious examples: both were geographical areas within which the population mostly spoke the same language, but they were, in 1848, divided into complex patchworks of individual states.

In 1806 Napoleon had abolished the 1,000 year-old Holy Roman Empire, creating a host of new statelets, kingdoms, duchies and so on. Some thirty-nine of these were formed into the German Confederation. The German states were a peculiar mix of sovereign empires, kingdoms, electorates, grand duchies, duchies, principalities and free cities. The German Confederation was dominated by the largest two states, Prussia in the North and the Austrian Empire in the south.

Italy was arguably even more divided, with the two northern states of Lombardy and Piedmont under Austrian rule, the central Papal States under control of the Pope, while the south (the kingdom of Sicily and Naples) was ruled by a bourbon king, with other petty monarchies ruling states like Tuscany and Savoy.

1848 was a big year for the famous Italian nationalists, Garibaldi and Mazzini, who attempted to stir up their countrymen to throw off foreign rule and establish a unified Italian state. It is an indication of how dire Italy’s fragmentation was, that the nationalists initially looked to a new and apparently more liberal pope to help them – Pope Pius IX – the papacy usually being seen as the seat of reaction and anti-nationalism (although the story of 1848 in Italy is partly the story of how Pope Pius ended up rejecting the liberal revolution and calling for foreign powers to invade and overthrow the liberal government which had been set up in Rome.)

So 1848 was a big year for nationalists in Italy and the German states who hoped to unite all their separate states into one unified nation. Far less familiar to me were the nationalist struggles further east:

  • the struggle of Polish nationalists to assert their nationhood – after 1815 Poland had been partitioned into three, with the parts ruled by Prussia, Russia and Austria
  • as well as a host of more obscure nationalist struggles east of Vienna – for example:
    • the struggle of Magyar nationalists – the Hungarians – to throw off the yoke of German-speaking Vienna
    • the Czechs also, attempted to throw off Austrian rule
    • or the struggle of Ukrainian nationalists to throw off the domination of their land by rich Polish landowners

Many of these movements adopted a title with the word ‘young’ in it, hence Young Italy, Young Germany, Young Hungary, Young Ireland, and so on.

Map of Europe in 1848. Note the size of the Austrian Empire but also the deep penetration into Europe of the Ottoman Empire

Map of Europe in 1848. Note the size of the Austrian Empire in blue, but also the deep penetration into Europe of the Ottoman Empire (Source: Age of the Sage)

Rapport shows how nationalists in almost all the countries of Europe wanted their lands and peoples to be unified under new, autochthonous rulers.

N.B. It is important to emphasise the limits of the 1848 revolutions and violence. There were no revolutions in Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden-Norway, in Spain or Portugal or in Russia. The Springtime of Nations most affected France, Germany, Italy and the Austrian Empire.

3. Socialism

After liberalism and nationalism, the third great issue was the ‘social question’. While the rich and the upper-middle class seemed to be reaping the benefits from the early phases of the industrial revolution – from the spread of factory techniques for manufacturing textiles, the construction of a network of railways which helped transport raw materials and finished goods and so on – a huge number of rural peasants, small traders, and the urban working class were living in barely imaginable squalor and starving.

The paradox of starvation in the midst of plenty had prompted a variety of theoretical and economic analyses as well as utopian visions of how to reform society to ensure no-one would starve. These had become more prominent during the 1830s. It was in 1832 that the word ‘socialism’ was first coined as an umbrella term for radical proposals to overhaul society to ensure fairness and to abolish the shocking poverty and squalor which so many bourgeois writers noted as they travelled across the continent.

So ‘socialist’ ways of thinking had had decades to evolve and gain traction. Rapport makes the interesting point that by 1848 Europe had its first generation of professional revolutionaries.

The great French Revolution of 1789 had propelled men of often middling ability and provincial origin into high profile positions which they were completely unprepared for. By contrast, 1848 was a golden opportunity for men who had devoted their lives to revolutionary writing and agitating, such as Louis-August Blanqui and Armand Barbès.

(As Gareth Stedman Jones makes clear in his marvellous biography of Karl Marx, Marx himself was notorious to the authorities as a professional subversive, and his newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung became the bestselling radical journal in Germany, but he had little impact on the actual course of events.)

The various flavours of socialists were united in not just wanting to tinker with constitutions, not wanting to add a few hundred thousand more middle-class men to the franchise (as the liberals wanted) – nor were they distracted by complex negotiations among the rulers of all the petty states of Italy or Germany (like the nationalists were).

Instead the socialists were united in a desire to effect a comprehensive and sweeping reform of all elements of society and the economy in order to create a classless utopia. For example, by nationalising all land and factories, by abolishing all titles and ranks and – at their most extreme – abolishing private property itself, in order to create a society of complete equality.

A crisis of modernisation

Rapport sums up thus: The revolution and collapse of the conservative order in 1848 was a crisis of modernization, in that European economies and societies were changing fast, in size and economic and social requirements, but doing so in states and political cultures which had failed to keep pace and which, given the reactionary mindsets of their rulers and aristocracy, were dead set against any kind of reform or change. Something had to give.

1848

Rapport tells the story of the tumultuous events which swept the continent with great enthusiasm and clarity. He gives us pen portraits of key reformer such as the nationalists Mazzini and Garibaldi and the socialist Blanqui, and of arch conservatives like Klemens Metternich, Chancellor of Austria, the young Bismarck of Prussia, and the sneering Guizot, unpopular premiere of France.

This is a great cast to start with but quite quickly the reader is overwhelmed with hundreds more names of radicals, republicans, liberals, reactionaries, conservatives and monarchists, ordinary workers and emperors – Rapport clearly and effectively presenting a cast of hundreds of named individuals who played parts large and small during this tumultuous year.

The first and decisive event of the year was the overthrow of King Louis Philippe in France and his replacement by a hastily cobbled-together Second Republic, in February 1848. This was a genuine revolution, and in what many took to be Europe’s most important nation, so news of it spread like wildfire across the continent, emboldening radicals in Italy, Austria, Prussia and further east.

Rapport describes events with a keen eye for telling details and the key, often accidental incidents, which could transform angry hunger marchers into an revolutionary mob. For example, the outraged citizen of Milan who knocked a cigar out of the mouth of a preening Austrian officer, sparking a street fight which escalated into a ‘tobacco riot’, prompting the city’s Austrian governor to call out the troops who then proceeded to fire on the mob, killing six and wounding fifty Italian ‘patriot and martyrs’. That is how revolutions start.

There is a vast amount to tell, as Rapport describes not only the turmoil on the streets, but the complex constitutional and political manoeuvrings of regimes from Denmark in the north to Sicily in the south, from Ireland in the west to Hungary, Ukraine and Poland in the east. I didn’t know so much happened in this one year. I didn’t know, for example, that in the Berlin revolution, in March, one day of epic street fighting between liberal reformers, backed by the population against the king’s army, resulted in 800 dead!

Fierce streetfighting around Alexanderplatz in Berlin on the night of 18-19 March 1848

Fierce fighting at the Alexanderplatz barricade in Berlin on the night of 18-19 March 1848

It was eye-opening to be told in such detail about the scale of the violence across the continent.

I knew that the ‘June Days’ in Paris, when General Cavaignac was tasked with using the army to regain control of all the parts of the city where revolutionary barricades had been set up, resulted in vast bloodshed, with some 10,000 killed or injured. But I didn’t know that when Austrian Imperial troops retook Vienna from the liberal-radical National Guard in the last week of October 1848, the use of cannon in urban streets contributed to the death toll of 2,000 (p.287).

There were not only soldiers-versus-workers battles, but plenty of more traditional fighting between actual armies, such as the battle between the forces of the king of Piedmont and Austrian forces in north Italy leading to the decisive Austrian victory at Custozza on 25 July 1848.

But it was the scale of the urban fighting which surprised and shocked me.

In another example, for a few months from April 1848 the island of Sicily declared its independence from the bourbon king of Naples who had previously ruled it. However, the king sent an army by ship which landed at Messina, subjecting the city to a sustained bombardment and then street by street fighting, which eventually left over two thirds of the city in smouldering ruins (p.260).

The social, political but also ethnic tensions between native Czech republicans and their overlord Austrian masters, erupted into six days of violent street fighting in Prague, June 12-17, during which Austrian General Windischgrätz first of all cleared the barricades before withdrawing his troops to the city walls and pounding Prague with a sustained artillery bombardment. Inevitably, scores of innocent lives were lost in the wreckage and destruction (p.235).

So much fighting, So much destruction. So many deaths.

New ideas

Well, new to me:

1. The problem of nationalism The new ideology of nationalism turned out to contain an insoluble paradox at its core: large ethnically homogenous populations were encouraged to agitate for their own nation, but what about the minorities who lived within their borders? Could they be allowed their national freedom without undermining the geographical and cultural ‘integrity’ of the larger entity?

Thus the Hungarian nationalists had barely broken with their Austrian rulers before they found themselves having to deal with minority populations like Romanians, Serbs, Croats and others who lived within the borders the Hungarians claimed for their new state. Should they be granted their own independence? No. The Hungarians not only rejected these pleas for independence, but went to war with their minorities to quell them. And in doing so, split and distracted their armies, arguably contributing to their eventual defeat by Austria.

Meanwhile, Polish nationalists were dead set on asserting Polish independence, but in Galicia quickly found themselves the subject of attacks from the Ruthenian minority, long subjugated by Polish landowners, and who claimed allegiance to a state which they wanted to call Ukraine. Like the Hungarians, the Poles were having none of it.

Thus nationalism spawned mini-nationalisms, sub-nationalisms, and ethnic and cultural conflicts which began to look more like civil wars than struggles for ‘independence’.

As a result, two broad trends emerged:

1. The chauvinism of big nations Nationalists from the larger nations developed an angry rhetoric castigating these troublesome little minorities as culturally less advanced. Rapport quotes German nationalists who criticised the Slavic minorities for their alleged racial and cultural inferiority – a rhetoric which was to have a long career in Germany, leading eventually to the Nazis and their Hunger Plan to starve and enslave the Slavic peoples.

2. Austro-Slavism In response to the breakaway aspirations of Hungary, the Hapsburg (Austrian) monarchy developed a strategy of Austro-Slavism. This was to appeal directly to the many minorities within the empire, and within Hungarian territory in particular, and guarantee them more protection within the multicultural Austro-Hungarian Empire than they would receive in one of the new, ethnically pure, nationalist states. ‘Stay within our multicultural empire and you will be better off than under repressive monoglot Hungarian rule.’

Thus when representatives of the Slovaks asked the new Hungarian Parliament (which had been created in March 1848 as a concession from Vienna) to allow the teaching of the Slovak language and the flying of the Slovak flag in Slovak regions within the new Hungary, the Hungarians vehemently refused. They accused the nationalists of ‘Pan-Slavic nationalism’ and of wanting to undermine the integrity of the new Magyar (i.e. Hungarian) state. Not surprisingly when, later in the year, open war broke out between Austria and Hungary, many Slovak nationalists sided with Austria, having made the simple calculation that they were likely to have more religious, racial and linguistic freedom under the Austrian Empire than under the repressively nationalistic Hungarians.

3. The threshold principle of nationalism The threshold principle is an attempt to solve the Nationalism Paradox. It states that a people only ‘deserves’ or ‘qualifies’ to have a state of its own if it has the size and strength to maintain and protect it. Surprisingly, Friederich Engels, the extreme radical and patron of Karl Marx, espoused the threshold principle when it came to the smaller nationalities in and around Germany. Being German himself he, naturally enough, thought that Germany ought to be unified into a nation. But the Czechs, Slovaks and other ‘lesser’ peoples who lived within the borders of this new Germany, Engels thought they didn’t deserve to be nations because they didn’t come up to ‘German’ standards of culture and political maturity. (Explained on page 181).

This was just one of the problems, paradoxes and contradictions which the supposedly simple notion of ‘nationalism’ contained within itself and which made it so difficult to apply on the ground.

Nonetheless, 1848 marks the moment when nationalism clearly emerges as a major force in European history – and at the same time reveals the contradictions, and the dark undercurrents latent within it, which have dominated European politics right down to this day.

4. Grossdeutsch or Kleindeutsch? Uniting the 39 states of Germany sounds like a straightforward enough ambition, but at its core was a Big Dilemma: should the new state include or exclude Austria? The problem was that while the Austrian component of the Austrian Empire spoke German and considered themselves culturally linked to the rest of Germany, the Hapsburg monarchy which ruled Austria had also inherited a patchwork of territories all across Europe (not least all of Hungary with its minorities, and the northern states of Italy): should those obviously non-Germanic part of the Austrian empire be incorporated into Germany? Or would Austria have to abandon its empire in order to be incorporated into the new Germany?

Exponents of a Grossdeutsch (Big Germany) option thought it ridiculous to exclude Austria with its millions of German-speakers; of course Austria should be included. But that would mean tearing the Austro-Hungarian empire in half because obviously you couldn’t include millions of Hungarians, Romanians and so on inside a ‘German’ state (the Kleindeutsch, or Little Germany, position).

Or could you? This latter thought gave rise to a third position, the Mitteleuropäisch solution, under which all of the German states would be incorporated into a super-Austria, to create a German-speaking empire which would stretch from the Baltic in the north to the Mediterranean in the south, a bulwark against Latins in the west and south, and the Slavic peoples to the east and south-east, promoting German culture, language and way of life across the continent, by force if necessary. (pp.298-300)

Comical and hypothetical though this may all sound, it would prove to be at the centre of world history for the next century. It was the ‘German Problem’ which lay behind the seismic Franco-Prussian War, the catastrophic First World War, and the global disaster of the Second World War.

The European Economic Community, established by the Treaty of Rome in 1957, at bottom was an attempt to settle the ‘German Problem’ i.e. to tie the German and French economies so intricately together that there could never again be war between the two of them.

Some people think the ‘German Problem’ was only really settled with the reunification of the two Germanies in 1990, but others think it still lives on in the disparity between the rich industrial West and the mostly agricultural and impoverished East.

And the question of German identity, of who is or isn’t Germany, has been revived by Angel Merkel’s over-enthusiastic acceptance of a million refugees in 2017, which has led to the widespread popularity of far right political parties in Germany for the first time since the Second World War.

All of which tends to suggest that the virus of nationalism, unleashed in 1848, can never really be cured.

Results

It takes four hundred pages dense with fact and anecdote to convey the confused turmoil of the year 1848, but Rapport had already spelled out the overall results in the opening pages.

Although all the protesters hated the reactionary regimes, they couldn’t agree what to replace them with. More specifically, the liberals and socialists who initially found themselves on the same barricades calling for the overthrow of this or that ‘tyrant’ – once the overthrow had been achieved or, more usually, a liberal constitution conceded by this or that petty monarch – at this point these temporarily allied forces realised that they held almost diametrically opposed intentions.

The liberals wanted to hold onto all their property and rights and merely to gain a little more power, a little more say for themselves in the way things were run; whereas the socialists wanted to sweep the bourgeois liberals out of the way, along with the monarchy, the aristocracy, the church and all the other tools of oppression.

It was this fundamentally divided nature of the forces of ‘change’ which meant that, as events worked their course, the forces of Reaction found it possible to divide and reconquer their opponents. Almost everywhere, when push came to shove, middle-class liberals ended up throwing in their lot with the chastened autocracies, thus tipping the balance of power against the genuine revolutionaries.

The high hopes of 1848 almost everywhere gave way to the resurgence of the autocracies and the restoration of reactionary regimes or the imposition of old repression in new clothes. Nowhere more ironically than in France where the overthrown monarchy of Louis Philippe gave way to the deeply divided Second Republic which staggered on for three chaotic years before being put out of its misery when the canny Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte – who had gotten himself elected president right at the end of 1848 – carried out the coup which brought him to power as a new Emperor, Napoleon III, in 1851.

Rapport’s account also makes clear that the violence and turmoil wasn’t limited to 1848 – it continued well into 1849:

  • in Germany where the newly established ‘national’ parliament was forced to flee to Frankfurt and, when the Prussian king felt strong enough to surround and close it, its suppression sparked a second wave of uprisings, barricades, vicious street fighting and harsh reprisals in cities all across Germany e.g. Dresden where Richard Wagner took part in the insurrection, whose violent suppression left over 250 dead and 400 wounded.
  • and in Italy where the republics of Rome and Venice were besieged and only conquered after prolonged bombardment and bloodshed. (It is a real quirk of history that the Roman republic was besieged and conquered by French troops, ordered there by ‘President’ Napoleon. Why? Because the French didn’t want the approaching Austrians to take control of Rome and, therefore, of the Papacy. Ancient national and dynastic rivalries everywhere trumped high-minded but weak liberal or republican ideals.)

More than anywhere else it was in Hungary that the struggle for independence escalated into full-scale war  (with Austria) which dragged on for several years. By the end, some 50,000 soldiers on both sides had lost their lives. When the Austrians finally reconquered Hungary, they quashed its independent parliament, repealed its declaration of rights, reimposed Austrian law and language and Hungary remained under martial law until 1854.

The Hungarian revolt led to the establishment of an independent parliament in 1849 which seceded from the Austrian Empire. Unfortunately, this was crushed later in the year by a combination of the Austrian army which invaded from the west, allied with Russian forces which invaded from the East. The parliament was overthrown, Hungary’s leaders were arrested, tried and executed, and the country sank into sullen acquiescence in the Austro-Hungarian Empire which lasted until 1918, when it finally achieved independence.

None of the ‘nations’ whose nationalists were lobbying for them to be created ended up coming into existence: both Italy and Germany remained patchwork quilts of petty states, albeit some of them reorganised and with new constitutions. Italy had to wait till 1860, Germany until 1871, to achieve full unification.

Polish nationalism completely failed; Poland didn’t become an independent nation state until 1918.

Same with the Czechs. They only gained nationhood, as Czechoslovakia, in 1918 (only to be invaded by the Nazis 20 years later).

Only in France was the old order decisively overthrown with the abolition of the monarchy. But this, ironically, was only to give rise to a new, more modern form of autocracy, in the shape of Napoleon III’s ’empire’.

It is one among many virtues of Rapport’s book that he explains more clearly than any other account I’ve read the nature of Napoleon’s widespread appeal to the broad French population, and the succession of lucky chances which brought him to the throne. Karl Marx dismissed Napoleon III as an empty puppet who made himself all things to all men, not quite grasping that this is precisely what democracy amounts to – persuading a wide variety of people and constituencies that you are the solution to their problems.

Everywhere else the European Revolution of 1848 failed. It would be decades, in some cases a century or more, before all the ideas proclaimed by liberals came into force, ideas such as freedom of expression and assembly, the abolition of the death penalty (1965 in Britain), of corporal punishment and censorship (Britain’s theatre censorship was only abolished in 1968), the emancipation of minorities and the extension of the franchise to all men and women (in the UK it was only in 1928 that all men and women over the age of 21 were allowed a vote – 80 years after 1848).

Order over anarchy

The political and economic situation had certainly got bad enough for a constellation of forces – and for hundreds of thousands of alienated urban poor – to mobilise and threaten their rulers. But none of the reformers who inherited these situations could command the majority needed to rule effectively or implement their plans before the Counter-Revolution began to fight back.

The failure of the French Second Republic, in particular, made clear a fundamental principle of advanced societies. that the general population prefers an able dictatorship to the uncertainty and chaos of ‘revolution’.

(This is also the great lesson of the wave of anarchy which swept across Europe after the Great War, described in by Robert Gerwarth’s powerful book, The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End 1917-1923.)

Again and again, in different countries, Rapport repeats the lesson that people prefer order and security, albeit with restricted political rights, to the ‘promise’ of a greater ‘freedom’, which in practice seems to result in anarchy and fighting in the streets.

People prefer Order and Security to Uncertainty and Fear.

When faced with a choice between holding onto their new political liberties or conserving their lives, their property and their communities against ‘anarchy’ or ‘communism’, most people chose to sacrifice their freedom for the sake of security. (p.191)

A simple lesson which professional revolutionaries from Blanqui to our own time seem unable to understand. It is not that people are against equality. If asked most people of course say they are in favour of ‘equality’. It’s that most people, in countries across Europe for the past 170 years, have time and time again shown themselves to be against the anarchy which violent movements claiming to fight for equality so often actually bring in their train.

P.S.

I get a little irritated by readers and commentators who say things like, ‘the issues in the book turn out to be surprisingly modern, issues like freedom of speech, constitutional and legal reform, the identity of nations and their populations’.

Rapport himself does it, commenting that many German states expressed ‘startlingly modern-sounding anxieties’ (p.337) in response to the Frankfurt Parliament’s publication of its Grundrechte or Bill of Basic Rights, in December 1848.

This is looking down the telescope the wrong way. All these themes and issues aren’t ‘surprisingly relevant to today’. What phrases like that really express is that, we are still struggling with the same issues, problems and challenges – economic, social and cultural – which have dogged Europe for over 200 years.

The past isn’t surprisingly ‘relevant’. It is the world we live in that is – despite all the superficial changes of clothes and cars and techno-gadgets – surprisingly unchanged. We are still struggling with the problems our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and their parents and grandparents, failed to solve.

If you’re of the tendency who think that handfuls of people living a hundred or two hundred years ago – early socialists or feminists or freethinkers – were ‘prophets’ and ‘surprisingly relevant’ it’s because this way of thinking tends to suggest that we standing tip-toe on the brink of solving them.

I, on the contrary, take a much more pessimistic view, which is that this or that thinker wasn’t a startlingly far-sighted visionary, simply that they could see and express problems and issues which over the past two hundred years we have completely failed to solve.

When so many better people than us, in more propitious circumstances, have failed, over decades, sometimes centuries, to solve deep structural issues such as protecting the environment, or how to organise states so as to satisfy everyone’s racial and ethnic wishes, or how to establish absolute and complete equality between the sexes – what gives anyone the confidence that we can solve them today?

All the evidence, in front of the faces of anyone who reads deeply and widely in history, is that these are problems intrinsic to the human condition which can never be solved, only ameliorated, or fudged, or tinkered with, in different ways by different generations.


Related links

Related blog posts

Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum (2012)

‘Every artificially inseminated pig is a blow to the face of imperialist warmongers.’
(Stalinist slogan quoted on page 426)

The full title is Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 and that’s what the book narrates in grim detail. Applebaum is already well known for her magisterial account of the Soviet network of prison camps or ‘gulags’. This account of the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe builds on her expertise, and benefits from the opening up of archives in both the Soviet Union and the countries which it subjugated.

There were eight countries in ‘the Eastern Bloc’ (if you accept that the Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were simply swallowed whole by Russia and ceased to exist as separate entities): East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Albania. Applebaum’s account focuses in detail on just three – East Germany, Poland and Hungary. I was a little disappointed by this, as I feel I’ve read lots of books and seen plenty of movies about East Germany whereas I know next to nothing about Bulgaria or Romania. But she’s right to say these three provide a selection of types of country which demonstrate the way different histories and experiences were subjected to the same murderous Soviet approach.

Each of the chapters then takes a topic or aspect of the crushing of Eastern Europe and describes its application in each of the three chosen countries:

Zero Hour

Paints the devastation of a continent after the war. Her account supplements Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe. We’ve all seen photos of the ruined cities. It’s the scale of human displacement which is difficult to grasp. Between 1939 and 1943 some 30 million Europeans were dispersed, transplanted or deported. Between 1943 and 1948 a further 20 million were moved (p.11) Levels of theft, looting, violence and murder were orders of magnitude greater than they had been before the war. In many places civil society had completely collapsed.

Victors

The path of the Red Army across Eastern Europe was marked by wanton destruction and mass rape, especially once they’d crossed into Germany. Hundreds of thousands of German women were gang-raped, many then murdered. Alongside individual acts of looting, the Soviet apparatus systematically denuded European countries of their industrial infrastructure. Tens of thousand of factories, trains and railway line, were ripped up and shipped back to Russia. They packed up Leipzig Zoo and sent it East.

Communists

Applebaum profiles the men who were to become the leaders of communist Poland, Hungary and East Germany – Boleslaw Bierut, Matyas Rakkosi and Walter Ulbricht, respectively. They were uniformly from poor backgrounds and badly educated.

Ulbricht was the son of a poor tailor who left school early to work as a cabinet maker before being drafted into the Army. In 1918 he was galvanised when he discovered communist texts which explained the world in simple terms and he never lost his faith. Like the other leaders, he benefited from the way the between-the-wars communist parties, as Stalin’s influence grew, purged many of their brightest and best members. Only the less bright, the more dogged, the more unquestioningly devoted, remained. (Of the thirty-seven original members of the Polish Communist Party’s central committee, no fewer than 30 were arrested in Moscow and shot or sent to labour camps.) This explains the poor intellectual calibre of the leaders of the communist bloc; the clever ones had been liquidated.

Moreover, these ‘leaders’ implemented a social, political and policing model straight from the Soviet template. They all copied the Soviet hierarchy of Politburo, Central Committee, regional committees, and local party cells. In all the countries, regardless of local political or economic conditions, they tried to apply the same political and economic straitjacket.

Because all were ‘Moscow communists’. This meant that during the troubled years of the 1930s and the war, they had all fled to Russia where they were soundly indoctrinated in the One True Way by the Comintern. The Soviets were deeply suspicious of any communists who’d spent any time anywhere else, especially any who had been based in the West. Once the communist regimes were in place, many of these non-Moscow communists were themselves arrested and sent to prison or labour camps – just in case they had divisive or alternative views. About anything. Only the most faithful of the faithful were allowed to take power.

Applebaum points out that, quite apart from notions of social justice or ideological convictions, membership of this small, élite band held two kinds of more tangible rewards: psychologically, it made you feel part of a chosen elite; and in practical terms, both in Moscow and back in their home countries, they lived an elite lifestyle, able to shop at party shops, stay in party hotels, relax in party dachas and send their children to party schools.

Policemen

The most obvious area where the European communist parties simply copied Soviet model was in the creation of their own versions of the Soviet secret police, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del or NKVD).

Applebaum portrays the chillingly efficient way that communist secret police apparatuses, which had been preparing and training for years, were flown in ready-made as each Eastern country was ‘liberated’ by the Red Army, to become the Polish UB, the Hungarian AVO, the East German Stasi.

For a few years most of the liberated countries were allowed to have a facade of democratic politics, with a number of political parties and even free elections. This was because the Soviets knew from experience that democratic politics is a sham: real power lies in the secret police and the prisons. Given complete control of these instruments the political system can be seized overnight simply by arresting everyone.

Applebaum shows how the secret police mentality had been shaped by intense ideological training in the USSR to believe that everyone not in the communist party was a potential enemy spy or saboteur, who consequently had no rights. Anyone could be arrested and she shows how, in the early months of Hungary’s liberation, the new security police was under instructions to deliver fixed quotas of ‘traitors’ and so quite literally arrested anyone they could find in the streets, including children.

And often, of course, even people inside the communist party turned out to be traitors. Absolutely everyone had to be watched, and as far as possible, everyone had to be made a collaborator of the secret police. Hence the extraordinary size and depth of the Stasi’s files when they were revealed to the public in 1990, and the dismaying discovery that a huge percentage of the population routinely reported on their neighbours, friends, and even wives and partners.

Violence

The Comintern knew exactly what they were doing. The liberated countries were to be slowly strangled. Other parties could be included in initial elections and be given various government departments – but the communists always and everywhere controlled the ministries of the Interior, of Defence and the secret police – i.e. all the mechanisms of violence. From the word go they ruled through arrests, beatings, executions and labour camps.

Between January and April 1945 the NKVD arrested 215,540 people in Poland. Most were in fact ethnic Germans who were deported to Germany. The 40,000 Poles were all sent to prison camps in Russia, where some 5,000 died. Between 1945 and 1953 some 150,000 people were incarcerated in NKVD camps in Eastern Germany. A third died due to appalling conditions. There was no heating, no medicines, no doctors, often no food. After the ‘liberation’ of 1945 between 140,000 and 200,000 Hungarians were deported to Russian labour camps.

The arbitrariness of many of these arrests, combined with the careful targeting of specific voices of dissent, worked exactly as the Soviets intended – terrifying entire populations into silence and acquiescence.

It is particularly chilling to learn that, such was the need of the new communist regimes for prison camps, that wherever possible they started reusing the Nazi death camps. Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and even Auschwitz, became prison camps for the ever-multiplying categories of traitors, spies and saboteurs which the communists quickly detected everywhere.

Ethnic Cleaning

The years after the Second World War were marked by the truly epic relocation of peoples. The largest group were Germans, with over 12 million Germans being expelled from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and other East European countries. Admittedly this was partly because many had moved to those countries during the war, as part of Nazi settlement plans, and also because the borders of Poland were drastically moved westwards by Stalin, effectively engulfing a large part of East Germany. But ethnic groups who now found themselves in the ‘wrong’ country were kicked out of all the EE nations. Applebaum’s account of the savage civil war between Ukrainians and Poles in south-east Poland is particularly shocking.

She also explains that anti-Semitism, although part of the hated Nazi ideology, was always liable to be revived in Eastern Europe. Many of the communist leaders were self-conscious about either being Jews themselves or that the party contained lots of Jews and tried at various points to recruit more Volkisch members. The whole issue was revived in the last 1940s as Stalin himself became clinically paranoid about Jews and in particular Jewish doctors, who he thought were trying to poison him, which led to many Jews being rounded up in the purges and arrests of 1949.

As usual, Applebaum conveys the infamy of all of this by telling the heart-breaking stories of individuals caught up in the madness. While all the nations of Eastern Europe set about ethnically cleansing themselves, expelling non-local-speaking languages back to their new ‘homelands’ – Czechs being kicked out of Hungary, Poles kicked out of Ukraine, Germans kicked out of Poland and so on – all these peoples could at least travel to a nominal home country. So this vast panorama of ethnic cleansing adds a kind of fateful inevitability to the increasingly urgent efforts made by Jews all across the East, and in Russia, to travel to their homeland, the newly-founded state of Israel.

Youth

I didn’t know that the Boy Scouts movement was as widespread and popular in Eastern Europe as Applebaum shows. It is just one of the many independent organisations which the communist parties all across the East slowly strangled and co-opted into official party organisations. For example in July 1946 the communist Interior Minister of Hungary, László Rajk, banned over 1,500 organisations.

Why? In the introduction Applebaum has several pages discussing the nature of totalitarianism, invoking the quote associated with Mussolini, that it can be summarised –

All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.

This chapter shows what nothing outside the state means in practice and it really is terrifying. Absolutely everything which we refer to nowadays as civil society – all charities, church groups, youth groups, hobbies and associations – every single way in which people got together had to be either banned or subject to communist control.

The relentless horror of this was brought home by the story of the 17-year-old Polish girl from Lublin who invited members of her old scouts group to get together to form a discussion group. She and seven friends were arrested and sentenced to between two and five years in prison. Nobody was allowed to associate together in any way lest even the slightest form of association create the germ of oppositional politics.

Applebaum points out that the focus on youth movements reflected Soviet and Marxist belief that human beings are blank sheets to be moulded and created at will, in this case to produce a new species, Homo sovieticus.

This is the background to Stalin’s expression that writers and artists should be ‘engineers of the human soul’, the human soul being something which can literally be redesigned and rebuilt to suit the needs of the proletarian revolution. Hence also Stalin’s rejection of modern genetics – because it appears to assert the profoundly fixed basis of human nature – and his promotion of the crackpot Lamarckism of Russian geneticist Lysenko, an apparently academic dispute which in fact had catastrophic consequences when it was applied to Soviet agriculture.

My ears pricked up when Applebaum points out that this view of human nature was prevalent in left-wing circles across Europe, because I have just been reading about Jean-Paul Sartre whose fundamental position is our utter freedom to create and shape ourselves. This contrasts sharply with his ‘frenemy’, Albert Camus’s position, that there is a human nature, its core element being revolt against our condition, against destiny and fate.

Which made me reflect that this is one axis along which to draw the divide between fundamentally left wing and right wing mentalities: on one side the belief that human beings can be changed and improved; on the other the knowledge that human nature is fixed, fallen and must be policed.

Radio

Newspapers were important and had to be controlled, but the easy way to do that was ration or cut off the supply of paper. Radio, however, was a potentially universal disrupting factor, and this explains why the political apparats parachuted in from Moscow already had training in how to use the radio for propaganda purposes. In many cases the Red Army was told not to damage the radio buildings of the enemy, notably the big radio studios on the outskirts of Berlin, virtually the only building left standing, as the Red Army was under strict orders to seize it intact, so that communist propaganda broadcasts could begin even during the last days of the war.

But – in line with the communist clampdown on absolutely every aspect of private life – woe betide anyone who had an unauthorised radio. In October 1944, Bolesław Bierut who would become the president of communist Poland, declared that anyone who owned a radio without a licence would be sentenced to death.

Politics

Detailed account of the way the communist regimes inched their way to power. At first they allowed other parties to exist, organise and publicise but the plan was always to persuade and then bully them into coalitions, where they could be controlled and then strangled.

It is striking to learn that in all the liberated nations the communist parties expected to win free and fair elections. They thought the populations would naturally be grateful to the Red Army for liberating them from the Nazis, and – indoctrinated with Soviet ideology – they also believed the working class would awaken to its historical destiny and realise the future was communist. But it didn’t.

Typical was the Hungarian General Election of November 1945, which was won by the Smallholders Party with 57%, followed by the Socialist Party with 17.4% and the Communist Party with 16.9%. The Soviet commander in Hungary, Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, refused to allow the Smallholders to form a government. Instead Voroshilov established a coalition government with the communists holding all the key posts while the communists set to work to undermine and eventually abolish the Smallholders Party. In February 1946 its General Secretary, Béla Kovács, was arrested, and sentenced to life imprisonment in Siberia for the usual trumped-up charges of treachery and counter-revolutionary activity i.e. anything which in any way could remotely damage communist domination (p.224).

In all the EE countries the same thing happened: the communists were beaten into third place in the only free elections they ever held, promptly cancelled any further elections, and set about intimidating their opponents. Opposition meetings were broken up, newspapers banned or prevented from printing, leaders were threatened and, in some cases, arrested, tried and executed. In Bulgaria the leader of the Agrarian Party, Nikola Petkov, was arrested, tried and executed in the summer of 1947 (p.219). Many of them fled their countries.

The hoped-for democratic gaining of power turned into violent coups.

Economics

The most notable thing about communist economics is that they don’t work. This chapter deals with land and business. Land reform was popular across the East after the war, partly in response to the amazing inequities of landholding, much of which dated back centuries. Still there was surprising resistance to wholesale land redistribution and it was carried out with characteristic inefficiency and inequity and, to the communists’ dismay, even after being given land, most peasants refused to vote for the communists, but preferred the parties set up precisely to represent peasants and small landholders. Until they were abolished.

As to ‘the market’ communists had been taught to abolish it and crack down wherever it appeared. This meant banning privately owned businesses and shops. In Poland between 1947 and 1949 the number of private trading and distribution firms was cut by half (p.248). But the communist apparatus was not able to fill the gap. The result was predictable: a vast increase in the black market and a general shortage of goods. These were to characterise all the communist economies, including the mother economy of the USSR, for the rest of their existence.

What the 45 year experiment showed is that central planning a) is not as responsive to consumer wishes as a free market b) because its monolithic nationalised industries and departments are top-heavy, bureaucratic, slow and inefficient and c) manned by the dimmest, most conformists sections of society. She explains how the cult of ‘shock workers’, i.e. super workers who heroically over-delivered on their quotas (the most famous example being the Russian coal miner and Hero of Socialist Labour, Alexey Stakhanov) paradoxically undermined efficiency, because so many workers were incentivised to copy their examples that quality across all products plummeted.

Pricing is also related to quality. If the factory can only charge one price whether its goods are designed by a team of top designers and engineers, or are the most basic product imaginable, it will opt for the basic model.

The result: empty shops and furtive bargaining down back streets, the permanent shortages and crap quality of all the so-called consumer goods produced in the USSR and all its European satellites. And the typically bleak Soviet jokes:

What is the definition of Socialist Amnesia?
Standing outside a bread shop with an empty bag, not knowing whether you’re in the queue or have just been served.

(In an interesting aside, Applebaum points out that, once an industry is nationalised, for workers to complain about working conditions or pay, is to protest directly against the state. This gives background to my boyhood in the 1970s which were marked by an endless stream of mass strikes in the nationalised iron, steel, rail, coal and car industries, and makes Mrs Thatcher’s move to privatise them seem not only part of her ideological return to free market capitalism, but also an elementary form of political protection. A government which nationalises an industry makes itself directly vulnerable to criticism by the very people it sets out to help)

High Stalinism

This is a brief summary of the topics discussed in part one of the book. The second part looks at the period between the communists’ full establishment of power, around 1948, and the death of Stalin in 1953 – the era of High Stalinism. It is even more shattering and terrifying than part one and covers topics like the rise of Socialist Realism in art and architecture, the creation of Ideal Communist Cities, and the ongoing crushing of internal dissent, among the opposition but also within the communist parties themselves, with waves of purges and executions.

1948 was a swing year. After four years the communist authorities had for the most part established a stranglehold on political structures and civic society, and yet the economies of the Eastern bloc were visibly failing. To anyone with contact with the West, it was obvious the East was falling behind, and fast. 1948 saw the commencement of the Marshall Plan to give American aid to any European countries who requested it, and the foundation, in May, of the state of Israel. As a result of these events, Stalin:

  • embarked on another round of purges and show trials, designed to create scapegoats for the failings of the communist economy
  • embarked on a round of anti-Semitic purges
  • launched the blockade of Berlin on June 1948, which led to the year-long Berlin Airlift by the Allies

In 1949 China went communist and Russia detonated its first H-bomb. In 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea. It was in incredibly fast-moving environment.

I read books, watch TV documentaries and go to all the main art exhibitions in London and regularly feel overloaded with information and nostalgia about the 1960s – about 60s pop, the 60s social revolution, 60s fashion, design, art and all the rest of fit.

But the more I consume these cultural products, the more I feel they amount to an almost deliberate neglect of the far more important and decisive years after the Second War and on into the grey 1950s when much more of vital historical importance took place, and when the freedom of the West, which we all take for granted, was secured in the face of terrifying opposition.

Conclusions

1. By trying to control every conceivable aspect of society, totalitarian regimes turn every conceivable aspect of society into potential points of revolt. Thus the logic of ever-increasing repression, to crack down on every form of expression. But hence also, eventually, a society completely riddled with cracks and fissures. Which explains what history has in fact shown us – that apparently monolithic totalitarian regimes can disintegrate with surprising speed.

2. At bottom the Soviet and East European communist regimes based their entire legitimacy on the promise of future prosperity and higher living standards which were to be guaranteed by ‘scientific’ Marxism. In this one central aim they failed spectacularly. By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953 it was plain to the Soviets and to informed citizens of Eastern Europe that the West was pulling away in terms of technology, consumer goods and living standards at amazing speed. It’s not even that totalitarian communism is morally wrong or artistically repressive or psychologically damaging or violent and cruel, although it was all these – it just didn’t work.

All the issues discussed in Applebaum’s text are vividly illustrated where possible by the fate and experiences of named individuals – so many of them individuals, both communist and non-communist, who thought they could change, influence or improve their countries and who, without exception, were arrested, tortured, sent for long sentences to sub-Arctic camps in Russia, or simply executed. So many worthy people, so cruelly snuffed out by such evil scum.

Indeed, for the book she conducted extensive interviews in person with survivors of each of the three regimes, who are named in an appendix, I counted 90 of them, whose stories and quotes thread through the narrative giving a real sense of what it was like to try to live and think under these suffocating regimes. It’s this detail, this working through of exactly how the communists clamped down on every aspect of human life which we consider valuable, which chills the blood.

On the back cover biographer A.N. Wilson comments that this is the best work of modern history he has ever read. It is certainly among the most important. How many thousands of histories, school textbooks, movies and TV documentaries are devoted to the Nazis and ensuring that never again can such a maelstrom of racial hatred and state violence begin to rear its head in any civilised country?

But there are still legal communist parties all over Europe and communist intellectuals who are listened to. My daughter is being taught Marxism in her Sociology A-Level and I know it is still taught on countless Literature and Humanities courses.

In this respect, for showing what life in a communist state really involves, and the slow but steady way all our civic freedoms can be undermined, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 is a vital and outstanding achievement.


Related links

Related reviews

Every room in the Victoria and Albert Museum (part one)

Cousin Carlos was over from Spain and asked if we could have a go at visiting every room in the (vast) Victoria and Albert Museum. In one full day, from opening time at 10am to chucking out time at 5.30pm, we managed to visit the first 50 rooms, i.e the whole of the ground floor.

The highest-numbered room in the V&A, up on the sixth floor, is 146 – but it quickly becomes obvious that not all the rooms exist, or are accessible, and that entire sets of rooms seem to have gone missing. So maybe there are more like 120 accessible rooms.

The advantage of the ‘every room in XXX’ approach is it makes you visit parts of museums you’ve never visited before, didn’t even know existed, or usually walk past in a hurry to get to the latest exhibition.

Cosimo III de' Medici by Giovanni Battista Foggini (1718)

Cosimo III de’ Medici by Giovanni Battista Foggini (1718)

Rooms 1 to 7 Europe 1600 – 1815

These are next to the tunnel entrance and are relatively new. They show objects from Europe – mainly France – between 1600 and 1815. A gallery attendant was keen to show us the latest digital innovation, which is you can look up some of the objects on a smartphone app and listen to commentary about them.

But the most striking thing about these seven big rooms is the question – Why are they in reverse chronological order? Why don’t the rooms start in 1600 and proceed through to 1815, showing you the development of various styles of furniture, metalwork, silverware and cutlery etc?

Instead, you begin with busts of Napoleon and Josephine and some striking ‘First Empire’ furniture from 1805 or so, and then move slowly back in time through the neo-classicism of the late 18th century with elaborate clothes and enormous dinner services (1770), past attractive rococo paintings (1750) and on into the heavy, elaborate and melodramatic statuary, painting and metalwork of the Baroque (1600-1700).

Of the wealth of impressive objects on display I most liked the rococo paintings. I liked their delicacy and humour, especially so close to the heavy, grinding Baroque mirrors and furniture and the architect’s plans and paintings of the vast palaces designed to squash the viewer with their power and wealth.

The Alarm (La Gouvernante Fidèle) by Jean Francois de Troy (1679 - 1752)

The Alarm (La Gouvernante Fidèle) by Jean Francois de Troy (1679 – 1752)

The galleries include several spaces entirely recreating the inside of a rococo or Baroque room of the time. There’s also a fancy interactive video built around the characters of the commedia dell’arte, popular across Europe in the 18th century.

Towards the end was a space devoted to 17th century guns with an informative video showing how they were loaded and fired. Beautifully made with plenty of fancy scrollwork and decorative metal work, these are, nonetheless, instruments designed to blind, eviscerate and kill people. As I get older I find it harder to ‘enjoy’ the sight of such things.

Case of 17th century muskets

Case of 17th century muskets

Rooms 8 – 10 Medieval and Renaissance 300 – 1500

I’ve reviewed these rooms elsewhere.

Not enough late antique/Dark Age/early medieval stuff, for my taste. More Vikings, please! In line with the confusing room number policy, although the numbers indicate three rooms there are in fact six, numbers 8, 9, 10, 10a, 10b and 10c. I like the pagan motifs, the Dark Age animals, the hieratic postures of these pre-Conquest figures, and the strange forest animals and foliage woven into the capitals of the wooden columns on display.

11th century carved wooden columns and capitals

11th century carved wooden columns and capitals

I liked this 12th century Madonna and child because it is so modern. It looks like an Eric Gill.

12th century Madonna and child

12th century Madonna and child

I love the enormously solid but beautifully carved wellhead from 900. Although a Christian artefact it is decorated with classic ‘Celtic’ interwoven knots and is redolent of a strange dark time, full of pagan secrets and mysteries.

Carved stone wellhead from Murano, north Italy

Carved stone wellhead from Murano, north Italy (c.900)

Room 10c is dominated by an enormous work – the Devonshire Hunting Tapestry: Boar and Bear Hunt (1425-1430). The tapestry is impressive in itself but benefits enormously from a stylish touch-screen guide. This lets you select particular themes or parts of the image and then zooms in to give extra information about them, giving you time to really absorb the details and let the impression of this huge work really sink in.

On the whole, I prefer medieval art because I find it full of touching and humorous details, to Renaissance art which I find too austere and coldly perfect. Hence I liked the three wooden statues in this room, depicting a knight and squire and man at arms, quirkily thin and cartoon-like, missing bits of their arms and equipment.

Three standing English wooden figures (1450)

Three standing English wooden figures (around 1450)

Rooms 11 to 15

Missing, as far as I can tell.

Room 16a

A corner room between 27 and the café which contains one statue, probably by Tilman Riemenschneider of Wurzburg, Germany, made around 1510.

Carved limewood statue by Tilman Riemenschneider from Wurzburg, Germany (1510)

Carved limewood statue by Tilman Riemenschneider from Wurzburg, Germany (1510)

Along with the north European statuary in rooms 26 and 27, this makes me wonder if there is a distinctive northern Renaissance ‘look’ i.e. the faces seem longer and narrower, the figures slightly gaunter, than the smooth perfections of the Italy Renaissance. I find them more characterful, in their strange remote medieval way.

Rooms 17 to 19

Don’t appear to exist.

Rooms 20 to 24 The sculpture gallery

Room 20 appears to be closed off. You could be mistaken for not realising numbers 21 to 24 were rooms at all since they in fact constitute the long narrow corridor you cross when you step down from the shop and walk across a narrow space to get to the swing doors into the John Madejski garden in the centre of the museum.

Joshua Ward by Carlini, Agostino (1764)

Joshua Ward by Carlini, Agostino (1764)

The corridor is lined with, and has a long central row of, a great array of statues of all shapes and sizes. This is the first time I’ve ever stopped and read the wall panels here and so I realised for the first time that this is the V&A’s European statue collection. As I’ve sauntered through it towards the exhibition rooms, I never suspected that it was divided into categories – funerary statuary, portrait statuary, garden statuary. Nor that it is arranged chronologically.

In the usual V&A manner, the rooms are in reverse chronological order i.e. the oldest statues – Jacobean funeral images and wall monuments from churches – are in ‘room’ 24, while ‘room 21’ contains a surprising array of 20th century sculpture. So, as so often, if you start at the lowest number and go through them in order, you are travelling back in time.

I had no idea that the far left of the corridor, room 21, contained such brilliant highlights of 20th century Modernist sculpture.

Mankind by Eric Gill (1928)

Mankind by Eric Gill (1928)

By taking the time to stop and read the many wall panels, I learned that most of the statuary belongs to the neo-classical i.e. hyper-real style which dominated from 1700 to around the 1850s. Master of this style appears to be have been Antonio Canova, who was one of several European sculptors who immigrated here and made a living supplying tasteful classical statuary for the homes and gardens of members of the aristocracy who had learned about this sort of thing on their Grand Tours of the Continent.

The cut-off date of 1850 coincides with the rise of ‘Romantic’ sculpture, which for practical purposes is dominated by the French artist Auguste Rodin. Apparently, eighteen or so of his works were being shown in a London exhibition of modern art in the summer of 1914 just as the Great War broke out. As the British found themselves fighting the Hun alongside the French, Rodin made the magnanimous gesture of donating all the works to the British nation. And so here they are, the Rodin Bequest, on permanent display in room 21a.

Rooms 26 to 27

These form the corridor running between the exhibition shop with windows to the left onto the Garden, which you walk down to get to the café. They are statues, so sort of related to the earlier preceding rooms, but statues of the north European (German, Dutch) Renaissance, almost all figures of Christ, the Crucifixion, Mary, saints, from around 1500, so in fact more closely related to the medieval and Renaissance galleries. And mostly in wood, often cracked perished wood, compared with the impossibly smooth white marble of Canova’s 18th century creations.

Rooms 28, 29, 30, 31

Missing.

Rooms 32 and 33

These are the numbers of the corridor outside the main exhibition rooms. They have half a dozen huge mosaics commissioned by an early director of the museum from contemporary artists. The one that stood out for me was the figure of Pisano as created by Frederick Lord Leighton.

Rooms 34, 35, 36, 37

Missing.

Rooms 38a, 38b, 38c

The main exhibition rooms. 38b and 38c are closed while the curators take down the big Botticelli exhibition and prepare the 1960s Revolution show, which is due to open in September.

38a is hosting a temporary exhibition of photographs from the past century, which take the camera itself as their subject. Oooh, the self-referentiality! From kids in New York slums taking pics of themselves holding Kodak brownies to paparazzi shots of glamour models or Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor being hounded by press photographers, none of these really interested me.

Earlier this year it was announced that ‘The world’s largest and finest collection on the art of photography is to be created in London when more than 400,000 objects transfer from the National Media Museum (NMM) in Bradford to the Victoria and Albert Museum.’

Just from a few hours’ exploration I’d realised that the V&A is really pressed for space. Its collection is vast and the rooms and corridors and galleries which currently exist can only show a fraction of its artefacts.

So where on earth is it going to display an additional 400,000 photographs? A purpose-built photography museum would be a much better idea.

Room 40

This is a big stand-alone room in the west wing, just up the stairs from room 21 of the statue gallery. In the centre of the room is a big circular construction which you need a ticket to enter and which hosts clothes-related exhibitions. This is where they had the stimulating show of fashion shoes earlier in the year. Now it’s hosting the exhibition of underwear through the ages, which I whistled through a few weeks ago and found surprisingly boring.

Lining the walls of the room which surrounds it are big cases displaying historic European clothes.

Rooms 41 to 45 – The Asian galleries

These four rooms are each a world unto themselves, focusing on, respectively the art and culture of:

Room 43 is the central main V&A shop

  • China (44)
  • Japan (45) ‘The V&A has been collecting Japanese art and design since it was founded in 1852 and now holds one of the world’s most comprehensive collections, including ceramics, lacquer, arms and armour, woodwork, metalwork, textiles and dress, prints, paintings, sculpture and modern & contemporary studio crafts.’

These rooms are so large and so packed with stuff that they have their own diagrams showing how the displays are organised into themes and subjects. Whole worlds, thousands of years of tradition, can be sampled and enjoyed in each one and they are related to specialist rooms tucked away elsewhere in the Museum. From these rooms I liked the geometric woodwork of the Islamic galleries, like this 19th century window panel.

Islamic wooden carved screen

Islamic wooden carved screen

  • the numerous small 18th century watercolours from India, such as this depiction of Nawab Sikander Jah (1810) artist unknown
  • almost any of the lovely Japanese prints:
19th century Japanese print

19th century Japanese print

Rooms 47a to 47g – The Asian corridor

As with the sculpture galleries, I’d always thought of this as a corridor – architecturally it is the long corridor which runs to either side of the main entrance (47d). I’d never really realised that each division of the corridor counts as a ‘room’ and that these are arranged to showcase artefacts from South-East Asian countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and so on. There were no end of golden Buddhas from all these countries and a space dedicated solely to Buddhas. Among all these the delicate puppet figures from Indonesia stood out, for me.

Rooms 46a and 46b – The cast courts

At the east end of this long corridor is an entrance into the famous Cast Courts. There are usually two of these but room 46a is closed for refurbishment.

46b is an enormous room, well-lit by a glass roof, which contains monstrously enormous plaster casts of some of the great classics of the Italian Renaissance. The casts were created for the 1851 Great Exhibition and were an education for the great majority of the population, and the many artists, who couldn’t afford to go on the Grand Tour to Italy themselves. Obvious highlights include:

although many of the best things are the tiny details to be found among the vast friezes and reliefs copied from towns and cities across Renaissance Italy.

Room 48a The Raphael Cartoons

This is entered from the South-East Asia corridor – from room 47a to be precise – and is a vast darkened room containing half a dozen enormous ‘cartoons’ by the famous Italian Renaissance painter Raphael. These are ‘full-scale designs for tapestries that were made to cover the lower walls of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. The tapestries depict the Acts of St Peter and St Paul, the founders of the early Christian Church.’

Subsequently, they were bought by King Charles I and transported to Britain, to the royal tapestry manufactory at Mortlake, where they were used as templates to make tapestries, before eventually passing onto the V&A.

In this shrouded room we are intended to reverence the genius of the Renaissance in hushed tones. You can see the characteristic soft-focus outline of the angelic faces, and the bold physical gestures of the figures in a totally achieved three-dimensional space. All of this must have seemed like magic to its earliest viewers.

Room 49 Exhibition space

I’m guessing room 49 is the exhibition room to the left of the main entrance hall. This is currently displaying an exhibition of the life and work of Ove Arup, the engineering company.

Rooms 50a to 50d

50a and 50b are enormous rooms, big wide and very tall, containing original Renaissance statuary and entire stone pulpits and the entire facade of an enormous Italian church.

Room 50a: The Renaissance City 1350–1600

I disliked most of the things in room 50a, the bigger of the two spaces – the flawless pastiches of classical statues, the vast looming choir screen from the Cathedral of St John at Hertogenbosch which covers one wall, the numerous heavy, threatening church features such as pulpits, fonts and screens, all done with a leaden, heartless perfection. It is a spectacular space, no doubt about it, and individual items are beautifully carved and created – but I recoiled from its overbearing scale.

Vast Renaissance sculpture in the renaissance Gallery

Vast Renaissance sculpture in the Renaissance City Gallery

What I love in Dark Age and Medieval art is the sense of delicacy and mystery, not vague sentimental hints, but the real, solid, dark impenetrable mystery of the northern forests. What I dislike about a lot of Renaissance, especially public Renaissance art, is its oppressive projection of power and control, typified by the equestrian statue above.

50b: The Northern Renaissance

The smaller of the two rooms is still enormous. Its artefacts appear to come more from the Northern Renaissance and feature more painted altars and crucifixes than 50a. Overall, I prefer statuary from the Medieval or Northern Renaissance, as being less superhumanly perfect. It tends to portray the imperfections of the human form, and therefore be more capable of humour. Very roughly speaking, repeat visits to the V&A make it clear to me that I prefer ‘Gothic’ to ‘Classical’.

Gothic North European altar

Gothic North European altar

But also, strolling through these rooms, the 50s, the goal of our challenge to see all the rooms on the ground floor of the V&A – another reservation emerges. Compared to the timeless simplicity of much of the Japanese art, the heavenly serenity of Chinese jade sculptures, the geometric mazes of Islamic design – all these bloody crucified Christs and saints and martyrs being beheaded, crucified, burned, drowned and eviscerated seemed like the quintessence of barbarism. Compare:

with any of the hundreds of serene, unviolent Buddhas from China, India, Thailand and across Asia:

with the dainty paintings of graceful Japanese women, with characterful Chinese jade statues of horses, with the geometric beauty of Islamic design, with the watercolour depictions of life at the Mughal court in India.

It’s difficult not to be appalled at the bloodthirsty images which lie at the core of the Western Christian tradition. But maybe this guy should have the last word…

English carved sandstone corbel (12th century)

English carved sandstone corbel (12th century)


Related links

Other museums

%d bloggers like this: