The Gallic War by Julius Caesar – 2

Propaganda

The fundamental thing to grasp about Caesar’s Gallic Wars is that they were not at all what we think of as ‘history’. The Latin word he uses was commentarii which, apparently, means something like ‘report’. Each of the 7 ‘books’ whuch make up the Gallic Wars covers one of the years when he campaigned in Gaul and each one is like an end-of-term, or in this case, end-of-campaign-season report, back to his masters, the Senate and the people of Rome.

Thus they are written for a particular audience and are designed to achieve a certain effect. This is to justify Caesar’s behaviour. Legally, he had been tasked with simply administering 3 existing provinces: Illyricum (the east coast of the Adriatic) Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy) and Transalpine Gaul (the area based round France’s Mediterranean coast, also known as ‘the Province’).

But he wanted glory and and so had his sights set on conquering further north into Gaul. But he couldn’t do this legally or on his own initiative. He had to wait till he had pretexts. This is why the seven commentarii are at such pains to emphasise that it was always the bad guys, the naughty Gaulish or Germanic tribes (the Helvetii, the Suebi, the Belgae) who moved first and to make it clear that Caesar was simply responding to aggression in order to maintain the peace and preserve the security of the Province.

But this interventionism was controversial and provided Caesar’s enemies back in Rome with plenty of ammunition to prosecute him for exceeding his authority. The Gallic Wars are a detailed attempt to head off those accusations and present his case, his justifications, to the widest possible audience.

They are the self-justifying propaganda of a conquering general seeking to influence his compatriots, and need to be read with this very much in mind.

Description of Gaul

First some basic facts: at 58 BC when Caesar was appointed governor, on the Italian side of the Alps, stretching from the mountains to the river Rubicon was the province the Romans called Cisalpine or Hither Gaul. On the other side of the Alps they controlled what they called Transalpine or Further Gaul, often simply referred to as The or Our Province. This covered the entire Mediterranean coast of France and extended inland a bit, up the river Rhone, and east up as far as Lake Geneva.

Beyond this lay what you could call ‘Free Gaul’ which Caesar famously describes as being divided into three parts, inhabited by 1) the Aquitani in the southwest 2) the Gauls of the biggest central part, who in their own language were called Celtae, and 3) the Belgae, in the north, extending from Paris to the Channel in the north and the Rhine in the east. (In the map below the Province is named Narbonensis, another alternative name for the Roman-controlled south of France).

Map with the approximate location of pre-Roman Belgic Gaul shortly before the Roman conquest, according to an interpretation of Caesar (source: Wikipedia)

Caesar deploys the familiar trope that Rome’s influence was n some way effeminising. He notes that the Belgae were:

the bravest, because they are furthest from the civilisation and refinement of the Province, and merchants least frequently resort to them, and import those things which tend to effeminate the mind; and they are the nearest to the Germans, who dwell beyond the Rhine, with whom they are continually waging war.

Caesar gives the names of lots of tribes and generalises about which are Gauls or Celts or German in origin, but pretty much all his terms and labels are contested by modern scholars because a) other ancient historians give different accounts of origins and languages and b) the modern evidence of linguistic studies and archaeology often contradict all of them. I.e. it is a complex and contested field of knowledge which is easy to get lost and perplexed in.

The Roman army

All the editions of the Gallic Wars contain an appendix on the Roman army. Since the reforms of Caius Marius around 100 BC, the army was divided into legions. Each legion contained 6,000 men, divided into 10 cohorts of 600 men, each divided into 3 maniples of 200 men, each made up of 2 centuries of 100 men, commanded by a centurion. Each legion had from 300 to 600 cavalry attached, but these were often foreign recruits and no general relied on them for their main battle plan. Caesar never does.

Tears

There’s a surprising amount of sentimental weeping. Men weeping. Rough, tough warriors and leaders weeping. Women weeping and wailing for their menfolk.

1. 20 With many tears Diviciacus embraced Caesar, and began to beseech him not to pass too severe a judgment upon his brother.

1.20 While he was making this petition at greater length, and with tears, Caesar took him by the hand and consoled him…

1.31 The petition was granted, and they all threw themselves in tears at Caesar’s feet…

Book 1 The expulsion of the intruders (58 BC)

[Note: the following chapter titles are not in the original. They appear to have been added by the translator of the Penguin edition, S.A. Handford. The numbers in round brackets refer to the chapters or sections which each book is divided into and which are numbered in the original.]

Chapter 1: Description of Gaul, its geography and inhabitants

As above.

Chapters 2 to 29: Campaign against the Helvetii

This was Caesar’s first campaign against a Gaulish tribe and, in a sense, the template for his entire subsequent involvement in Gaul.

Caesar claims the leader of the Helvetii, a tribe which lived on the Swiss plateau north of Lake Geneva, were being incited by one of their leaders, Orgetorix, to invade and conquer the rest of Gaul. Orgetorix conspired with leading men in two other tribes to overthrow their rulers, declare themselves kings, and carve up Gaul between them. Orgetorix was summoned to a trial by the seniors of his own people but avoided punishment by turning up with some 10,000 retainers and slaves. He got off, but at some later time perished, possibly by his own hand.

But he had inspired the other leaders with his plan and they burned their houses and crops and set off on a mass migration into Gaul.

Caesar repels the Helvetii going through the Province, forcing them to retreat back into their own territory, take the northern route up through the mountains and into the country of the Aedui. The Romans engaged them at the Battle of the Arar which led to negotiations with Liscus, Dumnorix and Diviciacus.

Second battle, near Bibrax. Retreat and surrender of the Helvetii.

30 to 54: Campaign against Ariovistus and the Suebi

Ariovistus was a leader of the Suebi and allied Germanic peoples. Ariovistus had led his people across the Rhine, fought and defeated the Aedui, seized a third of the Aeduan territory, settling 120,000 Germans there.

Caesar attends a general assembly of the Gauls where Diviciacus, head of the Aeduan government and spokesmen of the Gauls, complains to about Ariovistus’ conquests and the hundreds of Gaulish hostages he has taken. Unless Caesar does something the Aedui will be forced to migrate. Then, true to form, they all start crying.

When Diviciacus had delivered this speech all who were present began with loud weeping to seek assistance from Caesar.

So Caesar sees it as a) his duty to protect a Roman ally, the Aedui, but b) is well aware that confronting Ariovistus will also bring him glory and consolidate his hold over the army.

Caesar makes overtures to Ariovistus which are rebuffed. He marches to and takes the town of Vesontio but here some of the army is overcome by panic. The Gauls tell them the Germans are tall super-soldiers:

men of a mighty frame and an incredible valour and skill at arms; for they themselves [the Gauls] at meetings with the Germans had often been unable even to endure their look and the keenness of their eyes. So great was the panic, and so suddenly did it seize upon all the army that it affected in serious fashion the intelligence and the courage of all ranks… (1.39)

Caesar quells this potential mutiny with a long address concluding that he will march on the enemy with just the loyal Tenth Legion if necessary, with the result that his troops are roused and restored.

Caesar invites Ariovistus to a conference. He makes clear demands: that Ariovistus bring no more of his people across the Rhine, that he and his allies restore the hostages they had taken from the Aedui, and they undertake not to make war against them.

At the meeting with Ariovistus Caesar puts his proposals and Ariovistus haughtily rejects them. Ariovistus is given a powerful speech saying he never attacked the Aedui, Roman friendship is a sham and he’d make a lot of friends back in Rome if he were to kill Caesar on the spot. By this stage some of the Suebians are throwing stones and trying to provoke Caesar’s entourage so the latter withdrew. Next day Caesar sent Gaius Valerius Procillus for further parlay but, as they later discovered, he was immediately arrested and put in chains.

Ariovistus’ army moves off and Caesar tails him till both make camp barely 600 yards from each other. Ariovistus has a much larger force and Caesar realises he is surrounded. The Germans are reluctant to do more than skirmish and Caesar learns this is because their holy women are saying they shouldn’t engage in full battle before the next full moon. He gets some legions to build an advance camp then, next day, leads his legions against Ariovistus’s camp. This turned into the Battle of the Vosges, 58 BC.

The Germans advance towards them with such speed that the Romans don’t have time to use their pilums (spears) but are forced to plunge into hand to hand fighting. The Roman centre is being pushed back when Publius Licinius Crassus grasped what was happening and brings the infantry reserve into action in support of the Roman left. This developed into a general attack on the flank which broke the Germans who turned and ran for the river Rhine 15 miles away.

Many, including Ariovistus himself, managed to cross the river in boats or by swimming. The rest were cut down by Roman cavalry, including both of Ariovistus’s wives and one of his daughters. The ambassador Caesar had sent a few days earlier, Gaius Valerius Procillus, was rescued unharmed to Caesar’s great personal delight but described how his captors had cast lots three times, in his presence, to decided whether he should be burned to death now or later.

So the Suebi had retreated back over the Rhine and were broken as a military threat for the time being. Caesar claims that most of Ariovistus’ one-hundred and twenty thousand men were killed. Caesar winters his army in the land of the Sequani and returns to Hither Gaul to hold assizes. End of first campaigning season.

Book 2 Conquest of the Belgic tribes (57 BC)

Chapters 1 to 33: The Belgae

Caesar hears rumours that the Belgae are hatching a plot against the Roman people. He takes the two legions of Cisalpine Gaul and heads north. Delegates of the Remi, the Belgic people closest to Gaul, come to Caesar, declare their loyalty, but explain the rest of the Belgae’s plans. The Belgae were an originally Germanic people who crossed the Rhine and settled. When the Cimbri and Teutoni were migrating south the Belgae fought them off and gained a reputation for fierceness.

The Remi delegates give a summary of the different Belgic tribes, their numbers and leaders. Soon after this the Belgic horde besieges a Remi town called Bibrax. Caesar sends Numidian and Cretan archers and Balearic slingers to help relieve the siege and the Belgae abandon it.

The two camps line up opposite each other. The Belgae go to try and cross the river Aisne and storm a Roman outpost, but get bogged down and the Romans massacre them. The majority of the Belgae decide to retreat and return to their separate tribal homelands but their withdrawal turns into a rout and the Romans massacre the rearguard.

Caesar besieges Noviodunum, main town of the Suessiones. Overawed by the Romans’ siege engines, they surrender and hand over hostages, including sons of their king, Galba.

Caesar then marches on Bratuspantium, the main town of the Bellovaci, whose inhabitants quickly come out to surrender. The Aedui intercede on the Bellovaci’s behalf, saying they had been duped into rebellion and asking Caesar to show his customary clemency. Caesar does so, accepting 600 hostages and all their weapons. Then he marches on to the territory of the Ambiani who also immediately surrender.

The Nervii, however, under their leader Bogduonatus, resolved to fight and recruited allies including the Atrebates and Viromandui. Caesar marches into their territory and learns their plans. He starts making a camp on a plain by the river Sambre (modern scholars identify this with the river Selle). With great speed the Nervii attacked the Romans making camp and almost overwhelmed them, leaving them no time to properly arm. The battle was on a knife edge.

Caesar grabbed a shield, made his way to the front line and quickly organised his forces while the commander of the Tenth Legion attacked the Nervian camp. Then the two legions who ‘d been guarding the Roman baggage train arrived and helped to turn the tide of the battle. The Nervii are almost completely wiped out, reduced from a fighting force of 60,000 to 500 (28).

The Nervii’s allies, the Aduatuci, had been en route to join them. If they’d arrived in time they probably would have secured a Roman defeat. But hearing of the Nervii defeat they turned round and marched back to their own territory, concentrating their population in one town which they fortified. Caesar besieges it. When they see the siege towers being moved towards the town the Aduatuci decide the Romans must be aided by divine powers to build and move such juggernauts and so beg for clemency and agree to hand over all their weapons.

However, they had treacherously kept a third of their weapons and that night sallied forth and attacked the Roman camp. The Romans rallied and killed about 4,000 Aduatuci after which they retreated back into the town. Next morning the Romans broke down the town gates and took the town, selling the entire population of 53,000 into slavery.

34: Suppression of the ocean states

Caesar had sent Publius Crassus against the tribes which lived alongside the great Ocean i.e. the Atlantic, being the Veneti, Venelli, Osismi, Curiosolitae, Esubii, Aulerci and Redones, and Crassus now reported that they had all been brought into subjection to the power of Rome.

35: Fifteen days’ thanksgiving in Rome for Caesar’s achievements

The end of the campaign season. Caesar’s victories being peace to all Gaul and are known to tribes beyond the Rhine who sue for peace, sending hostages and promising to obey. As he does at the end of each campaign season, Caesar puts his troops into winter quarters and returns to see to his other provinces, namely Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum.

Book 3 The first rebellion (57 BC)

1 to 6: Servius Galba

This is at the tail end of 57, after the campaign season had ended. Caesar deputes Servius Galba to secure a pass over the Alps. Galba signs peace treaties with neighbouring tribes and with just two cohorts set about building a camp at a high settlement named Octodorus. The Seduni and Veragri treacherously attack. They take the Romans by surprise and there is fierce fighting until a brave centurion Caesar picks out by name suggests a sally and the Romans run out the sides of their fort and attack the enemy flanks, routing them. Maybe a third of the enemy were killed, 10,000. Worried about supplies, Galba decided to strike camp and marched his forces down into the safe territory of the Allobroges.

7 to 16: Campaign against the Veneti 56 BC

Suddenly revolt breaks out among the Veneti. They lived in Brittany, had a good fleet and imposed taxes on anyone using their waters. Roman legates had been dispatched to liaise with the Veneti and surrounding tribes and these were all now taken hostage.

Caesar divides his forces, sending them to different parts of Gaul to ensure peace with conquered tribes, then takes the main force west against the rebels. Advantages for the Veneti: their towns are right on the coast, often separated from the land at high tide; they are excellent seafarers and can navigate better than the Romans. Caesar gives a description of Veneti ships, their advantages over Roman ships.

Nonetheless the Roman fleet defeats the Veneti fleet of about 200 ships by the use of grappling hooks on poles to break the enemy rigging and leave their ships defenceless.

This engagement finished the campaign against the Veneti and the whole sea‑coast…they surrendered themselves and all they had to Caesar. He decided that their punishment must be the more severe in order that the privilege of deputies might be more carefully preserved by the natives for the future. He therefore put the whole of their senate to the sword, and sold the rest of the men as slaves. (3.16)

17 to 19: Operations of Titurius Sabinus against the Venelli

The Venelli rebelled against Rome, led by Viridovix who had lured the Aulerci, Eburovices and the Lexovii to put their ‘senates’ to death and join him. The Venelli surround the camp of Quintus Titurius Sabinus and try to tempt him out for a fight but he stalls. Then he briefs a Gaul to pretend to be a deserter and go to the camp of the Venelli and tell them Caesar is in trouble in the West and so Sabinus will try to sneak out of the camp that night to go help him.

Based on this false intelligence the Venelli march en masse up to Sabinus’s camp but he surprises them by sortying from the sides and setting his cavalry on them before they’re ready. Tired after their forced march and confused by the Roman tactics, the Venelli are massacred.

20 to 27: Operations of Publius Crassus in Aquitania

Publius Crassus leads a legion into Aquitania to take on the Sontiates. He engages in open battle then besieges their town which, when it looks like it will fall, the Aquitani surrender. A brotherhood of elite fighters led by Adiatunnus attempt a sortie but are fought back and surrender.

Crassus then tackles the Vocates and the Tarusates. He takes a town within days of besieging it and this so alarms the natives they send for help over the Pyrenees and veterans of Quintus Sertorius’s campaigns come to help. (See my summary of Plutarch’s Life of Sertorius.)

Alarmed at the rise in enemy numbers and that they would soon control the roads and corn supply, Crassus came out of the town next day to fight. The enemy refuse to engage so Crassus marches up to their camp and starts investing it, building ramps up the walls, throwing weapons. Then the cavalry report that the rear gate is inadequately secured and the Romans storm it. The enemy fought free into open country where the Roman cavalry followed and slaughtered them.

As a result of this victory over the strongest force the Aquitani could muster, Crassus received the surrender of the Tarbelli, Bigerriones, Ptianii, Vocates, Tarusates, Elusates, Gates, Ausci, Garumni, Sibuzates and Cocosates.

28 to 29: Operations of Caesar against the Morini and Menapii

The Morini and Menapii were the only unconquered peoples left in all Gaul. Caesar decided to mop them up before winter. But they adopted tactics unusual for the Gauls and retreated into their marshlands. Caesar ordered the construction of a camp nearby but, not for the first time, the natives rushed out and attacked while the Romans were building it.

The Romans fought them off and during the next days Caesar ordered them to fell all the trees and create a mighty rampart. The enemy retreated into the forest but it began to rain continuously and Caesar’s own army needed shelter, so he ordered them to burn the enemy’s fields and villages and buildings and then led them to winter quarters.

Book 4 Invasions of Germany and Britain (55 BC)

1 to 4: Description of the Suebi, Ubii, Usipetes and Tencteri

This was the year of the consulship of Pompey and Crassus as arranged at the conference of the Triumvirate at Luca.

The Usipetes and Tencteri cross the Rhine into Gaul with many men. They explain they have been pushed out of their own land by the Suebi, the most powerful of the German tribes. The Suebi wear the barest of clothes, bathe in cold rivers, have no agriculture but live by hunting, have tremendous freedom, scorn riding horses with saddles, ban merchants who bring wine and other womanish products.

5 to 15: Operations of Caesar against the Usipetes and Tencteri

Caesar hastens to the area and discovers the Usipetes and Tencteri have pushed aside the local Gauls, destabilising the area. Negotiations with their leaders, who bullishly say they don’t want to attack but will defend themselves if necessary. A few days later they send another deputation talking peace but, as they withdraw, 600 or so of the German cavalry attack the Romans. This surprise attack sees a number of Roman casualties and demoralisation before the main force of the infantry appears and the Germans withdraw.

This treacherous attack gives Caesar the moral advantage and when another deputation comes a few days later he promptly detains them (13) and marches double fast the 8 miles to the German camp which he immediately storms. The warriors are taken by surprise, mixed up with the women and children and all begin to flee back towards the Rhine. Here they are caught in the junction of the Rhine and Moselle and large numbers are killed. The remainder put themselves under Caesar’s protection. In other words, a crushing victory.

[The detaining of the envoys was clearly against the rules of war and Caesar’s enemies fiercely criticised it. A note in the Penguin edition tells us that Cato the Younger called for Caesar to be stripped of his command and handed over to the Germans for punishment. There was no chance of this extreme view being carried out but it is symptomatic of the extremely embattled political situation back in Rome which Caesar’s reports were designed to influence.]

16 to 19: Caesar crosses the Rhine

Caesar is careful to give reasons for crossing the Rhine since he, arguably, shouldn’t have been in Gaul at all and certainly not crossing the Rhine into new country. These are:

  1. To make German tribes less inclined to invade Gaul by making them afraid of the threat in their own lands.
  2. German tribes he’d sent envoys to had cockily said the Rhine was the limit of Roman sovereignty: he wanted to prove them wrong and worry them.
  3. The Ubii, the only German tribe who had made peace with Rome and given hostages, begged him to come over and free them from the oppression of the Suebi.

Detailed description of the engineering involved in building a bridge over the Rhine (17). It takes 10 days from starting to collect the wood to the army crossing over into the territory of the Sugambri. The Sugambri have fled into the forest. Caesar burns all their villages, farms and crops.

He marches into the territory of the Ubii to reconfirm their friendship. The Ubii tell him the Suebi have gathered all their fighting men into a central position in their territory and are awaiting battle. But Caesar’s aim was not to conquer more territory but simply to warn the Germans what was possible to act as a deterrent from them crossing into Gaul. So after 18 days he crossed back over the bridge and had it destroyed behind him.

20 to 36: First expedition to Britain

In invading Britain Caesar was, again, exceeding his authority and so his text emphasises his justifications:

  1. In all campaigns against the Gauls they had received help from the Britons (this seems extremely unlikely and a blatant excuse).
  2. He wanted to spy out the lie of the land, the size of the island, its harbours and resources etc.

Caesar marches into the territory of the Morini, closest to Britain. He sends a ship under Volusenus to do a reconnaissance and, having heard the rumours, the first British tribes send envoys to him offering submission. The Morini themselves send envoys and hostages and submit.

Caesar assembles 80 transports and warships for the infantry and a further 18 for the cavalry. The remainder of the army was to mount operations against the Manippi and resistant factions of the Morini.

The landing was hard. The first place they came to they could see the enemy lining the cliffs and able to throw spears down onto a narrow beach. So they put out again and drifted seven miles or so further down the Channel before beaching again (23).

The Roman army faced real difficulties, for they had to leap off the ships while still in quite deep water, weighed down with heavy arms, get a footing and fight uphill through water. The enemy by contrast was on horses used to the terrain and water, fighting downhill into the struggling Romans.

Caesar ordered the lighter warships to be firmly beached on the right flank of the battle and soldiers use slings, bows and artillery on the enemy flank. This succeeded. While the battle hung in the balance the man holding the eagle of the Tenth Legion declared he was going to do his duty by his general and leapt into the water, thus rallying the others. The battle was scattered and confused but eventually his troops got a foothold and were able to reassert discipline. However, the cavalry ships had not yet set out from Gaul and without his cavalry Caesar wasn’t able to convert repelling the enemy into a victory.

But, the Romans having established a beachhead, the Britons send envoys suing for peace. They admit that when the man Cesar chose as envoy, Commius of the Atrebates, first arrived they had arrested him and put him in chains. Now they humbly apologise for their mistake and promise to send hostages.

Four days later the 18 transports carrying the cavalry set out but are caught in a storm so some turn back, some get lost, some keep out to sea to avoid being shipwrecked. Later that night a storm hits the transports which are anchored. ‘Several ships went to pieces; and the others, by loss of cordage, anchors, and the rest of their tackle, were rendered useless for sailing.’ 12 ships were lost.

Seeing this and calculating that the Romans won’t be able to get reinforcements, the Britons decide to renege on their deal with Caesar and revert to war. Meanwhile Caesar ordered the remaining ships to be repaired with spare parts from the 12 which were wrecked and equipment brought over from Gaul to do this.

Elements of the Seventh Legion were out collecting corn when they were attacked. Caesar took the rest of his troops from their camp and came to their rescue. Caesar makes a point of describing the skilful way the Britons use their chariots.

He fights off the attackers and decides not to escalate the engagement into a full battle but withdraws to the Roman camp. But the Britons had sent messages in all directions and gathered a huge number of armed men. So a second battle takes place which is briefly described – the Romans win, drive the enemy from the field, burn their villages and crops, then withdraw again to their camp.

Next day deputies from the tribes come to sue for peace and Caesar demands they hand over hostages. He orders these to be brought to him on the continent because that evening Caesar sets sail back to Gaul.

37 to 38: Defeat of the rebellious Morini — subjection of the Menapii

One troop of about 300 had landed back in Gaul and were marching to camp when they were attacked by a large contingent of the Morini, who had been at peace with the Romans when Caesar had left Gaul. The Romans formed a square and soon as he heard about it Caesar sent cavalry to relieve them. The combined force beat off the Morini and pursued them, killing many.

Next day Caesar sends his most trusted lieutenant, Titus Labienus, against the Morini. Previously the Morini had retreated to their marshes but it’s been a hot summer and the marshes have all dried up. So they surrendered.

As for Quintus Titurius and Lucius Cotta, the lieutenant-generals who had led legions into the territory of the Menapii, they did not return to Caesar until they had laid waste all the fields of the natives, cut down the corn-crops, and burnt the buildings, because the Menapii had all hidden in their densest forests.

Great deal of wasting and burning, isn’t there? Which has led some modern historians to accuse Caesar of genocide. Some historians have totalled up the number of Gauls killed at over a million, in a land with a population of only a million or so. Arguments about numbers killed or enslaved quickly become highly technical (and Caesar may well have been exaggerating throughout his accounts to big up his achievements) – but you can see their point.

Even the most detached reading of the text begins to weigh you down with the sheer numbers of people killed, the towns razed to the ground, the populations sold into slavery, the villages and all the agricultural land destroyed. As Tacitus has his (probably fictional) Scottish chieftain declare of the Romans, in his account of Gnaeus Julius Agricola’s campaigns in Britain a hundred years later, in the late 70s AD:

‘They make a desert and call it peace.’

When the Senate received Caesar’s dispatches for the year they declare twenty days’ thanksgiving in Rome for his achievements.

Slavery

The usual fate of the inhabitants of a captured town was to be sold into slavery. A great part of Roman war profits came from the sale of people, as well as of property.
(note to page 227 in the Oxford University Press edition)

The practice of slavery among the native Gauls, and what it meant to be sold into slavery by the Romans, and how far towns and peoples would go to avoid such a fate, strike me as being of huge importance in understanding the native societies Caesar was attacking, the fears of those peoples and their motivation in repeatedly rising up against Roman rule.

And yet the issue of slavery is mentioned nowhere in the introductions of either Hammond nor Gardiner. They both go on at length about the well-known political political situation in Rome, which is covered in numerous other books, and yet completely ignore this huge elephant in the room.

Video

A useful video summary of Caesar’s campaigns.


Related link

Roman reviews

The Life of Julius Caesar by Plutarch

Rex’s reservations

The translator of the Penguin edition of Plutarch’s Roman biographies, Rex Warner, offers little one-page introductions before every life.

In this one he points out that, as in the Life of Gnaeus Pompey, Plutarch gives little sense of the fraught and violent politics 60s and 50s BC Rome, nor conveys the issue of street violence and anarchy in pre-war Rome. Also, he is an anti-Caesarian with the result that many of his comments springing from an underlying assumption that Julius planned right from the start of his career to overthrow the constitution.

Caesar’s plan had been laid down from the very beginning. (28)

This leads Plutarch to undervalue the contingency of Julius’s actions. Sure, he was very ambitious, ran up huge debts in order to scale political heights, but up till 60 BC Caesar did nothing which was outside the norms of the constitution. Attributing some deep, fully-worked-out conspiracy to Julius also underplays the way he initially hitched his star to Pompey, by far the more important and impressive figure in the 60s.

Warner ends with a pregnant thought. Plutarch’s simple-minded assumptions that Julius always aimed at one-man rule or monarchy means he neglects discussion of what reforms Julius had in mind to preserve the Republic.

Then again, Warner adds, in his own voice, Julius’s oft-expressed wish, that once peace had been restored in Rome, he would set out to engage the Parthian Empire in the East strongly indicates that Caesar himself had no answer to the political and constitutional problems besetting Rome.

The Life of Caesar

it’s not the longest life of Plutarch’s lives, at 69 ‘chapters’. It starts very abruptly when Lucius Cornelius Sulla seized power in Rome and tried to force Caesar to divorce his wife, Cornelia, because she was the daughter of Sulla’s enemy, Lucius Cornelius Cinna.

This happened in 82 BC when Caesar was, obviously enough, old enough to have been married (the traditional year of his birth is 100 BC so he’d have been 18). Therefore most commentators think the early part of the Life, which would have dealt with his family and boyhood and young manhood before this even, must be missing.

(1) When the text does get going it accurately describes Caesar as the nephew of Sulla’s enemy, Gaius Marius, the saviour of Rome from barbarian invasion at the turn of the century and the man responsible for a root and branch of the Roman army. Julius’s mother’s sister, Julia, had been married to Marius with the result that the old general became, apparently, a kind of father figure or hero to the boy.

When Julius obstinately refuse to divorce his wife at Sulla’s behest, he was forced to go into hiding, in the country of the Sabines, before taking ship for the East to hide out with King Nicomedes in Bithynia. [This account is obviously garbled because we know from other sources that Julius was officially serving under Marcus Thermus, praetor of Asia, 81 to 80 BC, when he was given formal instructions to go to Bithynia to raise a fleet to assist in the siege of Mitylene.]

(2) The kidnap by pirates Plutarch says Julius was captured by pirates near the island Pharmacusa. He was kept captive for 38 day and nonchalantly took part in their sports and games. He wrote poems and speeches and read them to the pirates who didn’t understand them so he called them barbarians and they laughed at his cockiness, as well as when he promised to have them all hanged.

When he was finally released on payment of a ransom by his family, Caesar bought ships, went back to their location and captured them all, taking them to prison in Pergamum. When he went to the praetor governing Asia to seek justice, the latter indicated he fancied their money i.e. would ransom them and set hem free – so Julius went back to the prison and, on his own authority, had them all crucified.

(3) Legend has it that, as Sulla’s power waned, and it became safe for Julius to return to Rome, he stopped off at Rhodes to study under Apollonius the son of Molon, the illustrious rhetorician with the reputation of a worthy character. Cicero was another of his pupils. Julius studied hard and reached the second rank but was content to go no further, preferring to focus on a career as a statesman and general.

(4) In 77 BC i.e. after Sulla’s death in 78, Julius impeached Dolabella for maladministration of his province. Having read a fair number of these texts by now, I’m getting the sense that Roman governors taking bribes, extorting money, imposing extortionate taxes and generally behaving very badly in their governorships was the norm. Anyway, Julius was a successful advocate and won popularity by espousing the popular or populares cause (as had his hero Marius) against the aristocratic optimates. Plutarch drops in the thought that Cicero suspected from the first Julius’s revolutionary intentions.

(5) In 68 BC Julius delivered a splendid encomium on his dead aunt. He won popular applause for the risk step of including image of her dead husband Marius in her funeral procession, as these had been banned under Sulla. Also in 68 his first wife died, and he delivered a funeral oration for her. In 67 he went to Spain as quaestor under Vetus. On his return he married a third wife, Pompeia. He continually spent huge sums of money, when he was curator of the Appian Way restoring it, and when he was elected aedile in 66 eclipsing all his predecessors with expenditure on theatrical performances, processions and public banquets.

(6) Julius hatched a plan to commission numerous busts and memorials to Marius and had them erected on the Capitol one night so the population woke up the next morning to find them everywhere. This was generally popular and revealed the hidden strength of the Marian party. In the Senate the leader of the optimates, Quintus Lutatius Catulus, accused him of undermining the government; but even here his action was broadly approved, and won him more popularity.

(7) In 63 the position of pontifex maximus or chief priest became vacant and Julius campaigned hard for it, against older more notable men. On the day of the vote, as he left his house he told his mother he would either return as high priest or go into exile. [I’ve seen this anecdote repeated in at least modern history books.] He was elected and now a solid cohort of enemies began to fear his rising power and popularity.

The end of 63, November and December, saw the Catiline conspiracy (described at length in my reviews of Plutarch’s life of Cicero and Sallust’s history). Julius played a notable role in the Senate debate about what to do with the conspirators Cicero had caught red-handed. When everyone else was clamouring for their execution, Julius persuasively argued their lives be spared and they be sent under house arrest to safe houses around Italy.

(8) Julius’s speech was very powerful, as we can tell from Sallust’s reconstruction of it, and swayed men who’d previously expressed the opposite view. But it was then solidly opposed by Marcus Porcius Cato and Catulus and the conspirators were led away and promptly garroted.

Plutarch adds the graphic detail that, as Caesar exited the Senate house after the debate, many of the young men who at that time formed a bodyguard for Cicero ran with drawn swords to threaten him, then turned to Cicero for guidance and, when Cicero shook his head, desisted – a vivid example of the way civic life in Rome had descended into the thuggery of armed gangs.

But then, rather rather than condemn this action, Plutarch goes on to criticise Cicero for missing an opportunity to kill Caesar and accuses him of being scared of the people. All of the political leaders were scared, because when the Senate held a debate a few days later which went on longer than usual, a mob gathered outside and called for their hero, threatening to burn the place down if he wouldn’t come out.

It’s not this or that incident which impresses the reader, it’s the sense that late Republican Roman political life was so fraught, that there was so much tension and paranoia.

(9) Introduces us to Publius Clodius Pulcher, the wealthy scoundrel who fancied Julius’s new wife. Plutarch gives the oft-quoted anecdote that Clodius chose to dress up as a woman in order to infiltrate the women-only rites of the goddess Bona which are held once a year in the house of the praetor. Caesar held this position at the time and so, on the night in question, he and all the males had left the house, and it was filled with women celebrating the festival.

(10) And Clodius dressed up as a woman, was let into the house by a maid in on the secret and went looking for Pompeia. But he was caught out by another serving woman who told all the aristocratic women who promptly searched the house, found Clodius hiding and threw him out. Then went home and told all their influential husbands, demanding justice for the goddess and the city.

A tribune indicted Clodius who was brought to trial but the jurors were intimidated by the people who lobbied in his favour. Meanwhile, Julius immediately divorced his wife. When summoned to appear at Clodius’s trial he was asked why he’d done this if he trusted her and he made the famous reply that ‘Caesar’s wife ought to be above suspicion’. Clodius was acquitted by the jurors who spoiled their voting papers.

(11) At the start of 61 Caesar went to Spain to serve as praetor but was only allowed to go after he had paid off at least some of his creditors. He had racked up huge debts and so went to the richest man in Rome, Marcus Licinius Crassus, who agreed to pay them off in return for help with his political projects. It was the start of the informal behind-the-scenes arrangement which, when it added Pompey, became known as the Triumvirate.

Plutarch gives the anecdote about Caesar reading a life of Alexander the Great then bursting into tears. When his friends ask why he replies, ‘Is it not tragic that Alexander had conquered a world of kings and I, at his age [33], have achieved nothing?’

(12) In Spain Caesar conquered tribes and administered justice fairly, in particular restoring fair relations between debtors and creditors. Though he also made a fortune through the usual channels. That’s it on Spain. Skimpy.

(13) On returning to Rome Caesar wanted a triumph but also wanted to stand as consul; the problem was that a general awaiting award of a triumph had to stay outside the city bounds while a man seeking election as a consul had to be inside the city, canvassing. So he asked friends to pass a law saying he could campaign in absentia i.e. staying outside the city waiting for his triumph while his friends campaigned for him. But this was vetoed by Cato the Younger who had found his vocation by opposing anything Caesar wanted. So Caesar abandoned the triumph, entered the city and got himself elected consul (in mid 60 BC). It was now that he negotiated the deal between Crassus and Pompey who had been rivals, to create what later became known as the First Triumvirate.

Plutarch makes it clear he’s one of those who believes this event and this date, 60 BC, to be the pivotal one in the road to civil war, because, without people realising it, they ‘changed the form of government’. Frustratingly, Plutarch doesn’t go into details or explain what he means by that. He’s not a theory guy. He’s a personal anecdote, superstition-loving sentimental guy.

(14) When Caesar took up his consulship at the start of 59, he brought forward laws appropriate for ‘a revolutionary tribune of the people’ i.e. land redistribution. Rebuffed by the optimates in the Senate he went before the popular assembly, flanked by Crassus and Pompey, and was acclaimed for his proposals.

Caesar wed his daughter Julia to Pompey. Then he married Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus’s daughter, Calpurnia, and got Piso made consul for the following year. Cato railed against this use of marriage alliances to bypass the forms of the constitution, complaining that:

it was intolerable to have the supreme power prostituted by marriage alliances and to see men helping one another to powers and armies and provinces by means of women.

When Caesar’s fellow consul tried to oppose his plans his life was threatened so he locked himself up in his house and daren’t go to the Forum. Pompey filled the Forum with soldiers to force Caesar’s laws through, then got Caesar awarded governorship of Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum and Transalpine Gaul. (As I know from other sources it was a bit more complicated than that, but Plutarch doesn’t do the complex aspects of events; he is interested in broad-brush, moral points).

So he points out that Caesar was instrumental in getting Cato arrested, in getting the notorious Clodius elected tribune who promptly raised a faction to get Cicero driven out of Italy (Cicero thought it wise to flee in March 58). All this is much more complex than Plutarch’s quick glosses of these events.

(15) Then Plutarch massively changes tack, by commencing to describe Caesar’s career in Gaul and pronouncing him one of the greatest generals of all time. This was because of:

  • the difficulty of the country he fought in
  • the extent of his conquests
  • the number and strength of enemy forces he defeated
  • the savage treacherous nature of the barbarian tribes whose goodwill he won
  • the reasonable and humane way he treated prisoners
  • gifts and acts of kindness to his soldiers
  • fought more battles and killed more of the enemy than any other Roman general

Plutarch gives the wild figures that Caesar took 800 cities by storm, subdued 300 nations, killed one million in battle and took one million prisoners. (In the Life of Pompey chapter 67, Plutarch repeats these figures but says it was 1,000 cities. Maybe these figures are just easy to remember. Maybe they don’t bear any relation to reality but are just lazy statistics.)

(16) Characteristically, rather than analysis, Plutarch gives some tall tales of some random acts of heroism Caesar inspired in some of his men.

(17) Caesar won his men’s admiration and trust by 1. the free and open way he distributed honours and largesse, making it clear he wasn’t keeping it for himself 2. by showing over and over there was no form of danger or hard work he was unwilling to undergo himself.

Plutarch says Caesar was ‘a slightly built man, had a soft white skin, and was subject to headaches and epileptic fits’. He makes a very interesting point: that everywhere he went he was accompanied by a slave who was trained to write from dictation. And that in Gaul he made it a habit to dictate letters to secretaries while all of them were riding on horseback. Is that how he wrote (dictated) his commentaries on the Gallic and Civil wars?

(18) Plutarch summarises Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul i.e. against the migrating Helvetii, crossing the Rhine into Germany to fight Ariovistus (19). Plutarch’s account is like a very brief summary of Caesar’s own Gallic Wars, but with additional details thrown in. Caesar tells us the Germans delayed fighting because their holy women said they should wait till the new moon, but Plutarch adds the detail that the holy women could foretell the future by studying the whirls and eddies in river water and the sound they made. And so Caesar attacked and massacred the tribe of Ariovistus, king of the Suebi.

(20) In the winter of 58/57 Caesar put his troops in winter quarters and returned to Cisalpine Gaul where he spent the winter politicking, receiving political guests, giving them gifts, promising them more. In Plutarch’s view Caesar was taking money from conquered Gauls in order to buy and bribe Romans. Brief though it is, this is a useful insight because Caesar’s own account obviously paints him as punctiliously performing his duty, so Plutarch sheds a whole new light on his activities.

Back to the fighting: Plutarch gives a quick summary of Caesar’s campaigns against the Belgae in the far north who he massacred so much that lakes and deep rivers filled up with bodies. (This, I think, shades into the taste for the extreme and the grotesque which we’ve seen in other Plutarch lives.)

Then a quick paragraph summarising the campaign against the Nervii focusing on the climactic battle which was going against the Romans till Caesar seized a shield and plunged into the thick of the fight, prompting the tenth legion to come to his aid. Result: some 60,000 Nervii dead.

(21) The Senate declared 15 days of public rejoicing. The winter of 57/6 Caesar again spent in north Italy, giving money to clients to buy elections to positions where they could support him. He organised the conference at Luca where the Triumvirate was renewed with a third of the Senate and umpteen other magistrates present. In effect. Caesar, Pompey and Crassus were running the state for their own benefit. They stitched up a deal whereby Pompey and Crassus would be consuls for the following year (55) while Caesar had his command in Gaul renewed for another five years. They had got their fiercest critic, Cato, out of the way, by having him posted as governor of Cyprus in 58.

(22) 55 BC. Brief summary of Caesar’s campaign against the Usipes and Tenteritae who had crossed the Rhine and were rampaging through Gaulish territory. They broke a promise, attacked and massacred his cavalry, so next time they send a deputation Caesar arrested it. As a result his implacable enemy Cato, now returned to Rome after his year in Cyprus, called for Caesar to be handed over to the Germans for oath-breaking. Another jaw-breaking figure: 400,000 Germans are said to have been killed. Caesar built a bridge over the Rhine in a record-breaking 10 days.

(23) Caesar took his legions across the Rhine. The Germans ran away and hid in the forests. Caesar ravaged far and wide. (Plutarch doesn’t mention this but Caesar wanted to take the fight into Germany and intimidate them against invading Gaul again). He ravaged far and wide for 18 days then withdrew his army and dismantled the bridge.

Plutarch gives a very superficial one-paragraph account of Caesar’s two expeditions into Britain (55 and 54 BC). What he adds to Caesar’s account is the fact that Britain was a legendary land and some contemporaries thought it didn’t even exist. In Plutarch’s view he found the inhabitants poor and wretched with nothing worth stealing, whereas Caesar gives an infinitely more detailed account, explaining the many trade links between north Gaul and Britain which exported, among other things, tin, furs and slaves to the continent. Slaves.

(The more you read about the ancient world, the more you get used to the idea that slavery was universal, a universal trade, a universal consequence of the unending wars, the basis of much of the economy [in mines and huge agricultural estates] reaching right into the most intimate spaces and relationships in domestic households [as per the playwrights Plautus and Terence]).

Back in Gaul Caesar received letters from friends telling him his daughter Julia, Pompey’s wife, had died in childbirth in August 54. Many contemporaries immediately worried about what would happen now this important tie between Caesar and Pompey had been severed.

(24) In the winter of 54/53 the whole of Gaul broke out in revolt. Very briefly Plutarch describes how the rebel army under Ambiorix (he calls him Abriorix) massacred the entire army of Caesar’s legates, Quintus Titurius Sabinus and Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta. There followed the prolonged siege of the camp of Quintus Tullius Cicero, the orator’s younger brother who was serving as a staff officer with Caesar’s army.

Plutarch describes how Caesar marched to his aid with a force much smaller than the attackers, lured them away from the siege, built a camp, feigned weakness and fear till the Gauls attacked in their usual haphazard fashion – at which point the Romans sortied out of the camp and defeated them.

(25) Pompey lent him two of his Italian legions and Caesar travelled around the country deploying cohorts and commanders at key locations. All this was leading up to the outbreak of the greatest rebellion of all, in 52 BC, led by Vercingetorix.

(26) Plutarch gives a superficial account of the various tribes which joined Vercingetorix’s revolt and of Caesar’s marching his army through various territories, leading up to a victorious battle.

(27) Vercingetorix retreated to the stronghold of his people at Alesia. Caesar besieged it. But then all the other Gaullish tribes rallied and sent an enormous force against him of 250,000. So Caesar had to build a double row of fortifications, one set facing in, the other facing out.

Very superficially Plutarch describes Caesar’s victory over a) the attackers who melt away, and then b) the eventual surrender of the besieged town. Plutarch doesn’t give any details of the siege but devotes a paragraph to painting the scene of the defeated Vercingetorix riding a horse up to Caesar sitting in his commander’s chair, slowly riding round him, dismounting, stripping off his armour and sitting humbly at Caesar’s feet. Who cares whether this happened or not – it is like a sumptuous Victorian history painting and Plutarch is more of a painter than a historian.

Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar, September 52 BC, by Lionel Noel Roger (1899) Note the impressive Roman siege tower looming over the smoking ruins of Alesia at top left.

(28) Plutarch gives a rather simple-minded summary of the political situation. When Crassus killed in faraway Parthia in 53, the triumvirate became a duumvirate and the rivalry between Caesar and Pompey to be top dog came out into the open. Plutarch claims that Pompey initially thought Caesar was a toy dependent on him, and only came to fear him too late.

Meanwhile politics in Rome had declined into chaos. Voters were routinely and openly bribed and the venues for voting often ended up covered in blood and bodies. (Oddly, Plutarch nowhere mentions the notorious street gangs of the rivals Publius Clodius Pulcher and Titus Annius Milo which dominate modern accounts of the period).

Intelligent people were already thinking the Republic could no longer function which is why Cato (of all people) made the desperate suggestion that Pompey be made sole consul for a year (52 BC). So Plutarch appears to contradict his own earlier statement about the triumvirate overthrowing the existing order, with this passage demonstrating that the existing order was collapsing from within. The only question was who would step in to run things.

Pompey had his governorship over Spain extended. He had never actually gone to Spain but ruled it through legates while remaining in Italy with four legions at his command. In the days of the Triumvirate this was so he could protect his partners’ interests. Now that Crassus was dead, to Caesar and everyone else it took on a different complexion and looked like Pompey wanted to make himself top dog in Italy.

(29) Caesar asked the Senate for permission to be allowed to stand for a consulship and to have his command in Gaul extended.

Plutarch adds detailed anecdotes to Caesar’s complaints that he had many enemies suggesting that he really did. These included the two consuls, Marcus Claudius Marcellus and Lucius Cornelius Lentulus who, for example, had the inhabitants of Novum Comum, a colony recently established by Caesar in Gaul, deprived of their citizenship. Marcellus had a deputation from Novum Comum beaten with rods and told they weren’t real Romans and told to go back to Gaul and show Caesar their wounds.

These kinds of stories, along with the Clodius-Milo street gangs, the bribery, and the casual violence in the Forum, around the Senate, build up a picture of a state which really needed to be taken in hand and sorted out.

Meanwhile, Caesar used the wealth he’d gained in Gaul to win important supporters and to build striking monuments such as the Basilica Pauli Aemilii in the centre of Rome. Pompey was now alarmed at his power and so supported moves to have Caesar replaced in Gaul. He had tribunes pass a law sending more legions to Syria and asked Caesar to return the legion he’d loaned him a few years before i.e. Caesar lost 2 legions, Pompey none. It wasn’t paranoid of Caesar to see a conspiracy against him in all these actions.

Plutarch adds the interesting detail that these returning legions spread false rumours that Caesar was unpopular with his troops. This encouraged a false sense of security in Pompey, a confidence that he could not only rustle up troops in Italy whenever he wanted but that if Caesar’s troops returned they would all defect to him. This was a catastrophically wrong assumption. Stuck in Rome among politicians, he believed that resolutions passed in the Senate or people’s assemblies meant something, gave him strength when, of course, they were just hot air compared to Caesar’s battle-hardened army.

(30) Yet Caesar’s demands seemed reasonable enough. He suggested both he and Pompey surrendered their commands and put things to a vote of the Senate and people. Curio read out this proposal to the Senate and was applauded. Marcus Antonius (who I’ll refer to by his familiar English name of Mark Antony) was serving as a tribune of the plebs and reads a letter of the same effect to that assembly.

Yet the optimates in the Senate rejected the proposal and Pompey’s father-in-law, the phenomenally aristocratic Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio Nasica, counter-proposed that Caesar be declared a public enemy if he did not lay down his command by a specified date, while Pompey would not have to do the same. It was this political impasse which meant there could only be a military solution.

(31) Caesar makes a milder proposal that he give up Transalpine Gaul but maintain governorship of Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum and just two legions. Cicero was very active in shuttling from one group of supporters to another and Pompey was inclined to accept the figure of 6,000 soldiers left to Caesar. But this was opposed by the consul, Lucius Cornelius Lentulus, who went out of his way to insult Antony and Curio, who he drove out of the Senate with threats of violence. This forced them to disguise themselves and escape Rome in carts.

[So you could argue that the civil war broke out and the Roman republic crashed to an end because Lentulus was an idiot. And Cato, too, who was just as intransigent. There are always people like them, determined to push their principles or their cause beyond the bonds of compromise or expediency required to make democracy work, triggering disasters far worse than anything they claim to be working to prevent.]

Plutarch brings out something which is obscure in Caesar’s account which is that by forcing Antony and Curio flee, Lentulus was depriving them of their right of veto and attacking their constitutional right as tribunes of the plebs. Caesar was to use this point repeatedly in the half dozen or so places where he states his case in the account he wrote of what ensured, The Civil War. Lentulus gifted Caesar a way of expanding the argument from being solely about Caesar’s dignity and rights into a broader one about attacks on the tribunes and the constitution. Idiot Lentulus gifted Caesar a propaganda coup.

(32) With the expulsion of Antony and the declaration of Caesar as a public enemy the political crisis had reached a climax. Plutarch explains how Caesar, realising that a sudden surprise move would be far more effective than some laboriously contrived campaign, decided to act quickly. He gives a characteristically dramatic account of the evening Caesar crossed the Rubicon.

He himself spent the day in public, attending and watching the exercises of gladiators; but a little before evening he bathed and dressed and went into the banqueting hall. Here he held brief converse with those who had been invited to supper, and just as it was getting dark and went away, after addressing courteously most of his guests and bidding them await his return. To a few of his friends, however, he had previously given directions to follow him, not all by the same route, but some by one way and some by another. He himself mounted one of his hired carts and drove at first along another road, then turned towards Ariminum. When he came to the river which separates Cisalpine Gaul from the rest of Italy (it is called the Rubicon), and began to reflect, now that he drew nearer to the fearful step and was agitated by the magnitude of his ventures, he checked his speed. Then, halting in his course, he communed with himself a long time in silence as his resolution wavered back and forth, and his purpose then suffered change after change. For a long time, too, he discussed his perplexities with his friends who were present, among whom was Asinius Pollio, estimating the great evils for all mankind which would follow their passage of the river, and the wide fame of it which they would leave to posterity. But finally, with a sort of passion, as if abandoning calculation and casting himself upon the future, and uttering the phrase with which men usually prelude their plunge into desperate and daring fortunes, “Let the die be cast,” he hastened to cross the river; and going at full speed now for the rest of the time, before daybreak he dashed into Ariminum and took possession of it.​

Great dramatic moment.

(33) Total panic in Rome, among the population and the politicians. Lentulus was roundly criticised by all sides for what his intemperate action had triggered. Once, in a speech to the Senate, Pompey had boasted that all he had to do was stamp his feet and armies would rally to his call. So the senator Favonius shouted at him to stamp his feet now.

In fact Pompey commanded at least 2 legions while Caesar only had one (though he had sent messages to Gaul for the legions there to join him). Pompey might have defeated Caesar if he had marched to confront him straightaway. Instead he let himself be carried away in the panic of the time, declared a state of anarchy and left the city, along with his legions, advising the Senate to follow him.

In Cicero’s letters we read how this single fateful decision lost Pompey huge amounts of goodwill and trust at a stroke.

(34) Plutarch describes how the consuls and Senate abandoned Rome which became like a ship in a storm which has lost its helmsman. Caesar besieged Corfinium. Plutarch supplies a characteristically theatrical anecdote, telling us that the town’s commander, Domitius, took poison provided by his slave but, when he heard of Caesar’s policy of blanket forgiveness to beaten opponents, Domitius bewailed his decision – at which point his slave admitted it wasn’t poison he gave him after all, Domitius was delighted and went out to greet Caesar and hand over Corfinium.

(35) Plutarch very quickly describes how Caesar took other towns and added their garrisons to his. How he marched to confront Pompey who, however, fled to Brundisium on the south-east coast of Italy and took ship for Greece. Caesar, having no ships, could not follow so turned back to Rome, having conquered Italy in 60 day without bloodshed. [Plutarch makes no mention of the elaborate siege of Brundisium, which lasted over a week.]

Entering Rome Caesar addressed what remains of the Senate in calm and reasonable terms and asked them to send envoys to Pompey to negotiate peace, but they refused out of fear. Caesar broke into the state treasury despite the protests of its guardian, Metellus.

(36) Unable to cross the sea to Greece, Caesar secured his rear by marching his army round the coast to Spain, to take on the legions there which were loyal to their commander, Pompey. In two brisk sentences Plutarch gives a flying overview of Caesar’s campaign in Spain i.e. despite hardships he defeated the Pompeian generals Afranius and Varro. [Compare and contrast with the thorough account in Caesar’s own Civil War.]

(37) Back in Rome, Caesar adopted the extraordinary and ad hoc power of ‘dictator’ for just 11 days during which he passed important laws: bringing home exiles, restoring the civic rights of the children of those proscribed by Sulla (a continuation of his restoring the statues of Marius), lowering interest rates to relieve the burdens of the debtor class, and other public-spirited reforms. (According to a note from Warner, Plutarch is wrong, here; Caesar was made dictator while he was still in Massilia en route back to Rome, by a decision of the praetor Marcus Aemilius Lepidus.)

Caesar then resigned the dictatorship, had himself appointed consul and set out for Brundisium again.

He took ship to Greece and captured Oricum and Apollonia. Plutarch devotes a colourful paragraph to imagining the complaints of the legions who have marched all the way from Gaul, moaning about being taken for granted and used like tools.

(38) Plutarch then wastes an entire chapter describing an unlikely escapade in which Caesar decides he has to go back to Brundisium to collect his troops but does so by disguising himself as a slave aboard a merchant vessel which, in the event, is unable to make it from the mouth of the river into the open sea because of tides and wind. [Not very likely and not mentioned in any other source. Moments like this in Plutarch have the feel of fairy tale rather than history.]

(39) Antony arrived from Brundisium with reinforcements but Pompey was well situated and able to receive supplies by land and sea. The complete lack of detail about the campaign in Greece makes you wonder whether Plutarch even had Caesar’s own account as a source. Maybe he was just really bored and fast forwarding through the whole story.

Similarly he doesn’t explain anything about the vital defeat at the battle of Dyrrichium but uses it solely to give an impressionistic portrait of panic-stricken troops. In Plutarch’s account, after this defeat Caesar spent a sleepless night before deciding to leave Pompey by the sea and march inland to attack the army of his father-in-law Scipio (which was marching back from the east to help Pompey).

(40) This looks to Pompey’s people like flight, and rumours spread that Caesar’s men are tired out and starving and that a pestilence has broken out. For these reasons Pompey thought it best to let Caesar’s army wear itself out.

(41) But his squabbling advisers demanded action, and Plutarch singles out Favonius and Afranius who shame Pompey into fighting. Plutarch gives a scrappy half-hearted ‘explanation of how, having taken the town of Gomphi, Caesar was able to provision his army and the availability of wine suddenly cleared up the mystery illness they’d been suffering from.

(42) Both armies come into the plain of Pharsalus, like everyone who something bad is about to happen to, has a prophetic dream. Plutarch follows Caesar in mocking the absurd over-confidence of Pompey’s entourage of politicians. They were so confident of victory that they devoted their energies to squabbling over who would hold which high office when they returned to Rome as victors.

Domitius and [Publius Cornelius Lentulus] Spinther and Scipio disputed earnestly with one another over Caesar’s office of Pontifex Maximus, and many sent agents to Rome to hire and take possession of houses suitable for praetors and consuls, assuming that they would immediately hold these offices after the war.

They are bolstered by the disparity between the armies: Pompey’s 45,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry against Caesar’s 22,000 and 1,000.

(43) Plutarch describes the omens on Caesar’s side.

  • Caesar told his army that several legions were on their way to join them, and should they wait to share the glory of a great victory? To which they obviously shouted ‘No!’
  • Caesar made a sacrifice and the seers told him it signified a revolution in the current status quo.
  • The night before the battle a fiery torch was seen moving in the sky above their camp which then fell to earth into Pompey’s camp.

On 9 August 48 BC Caesar broke camp and prepared to march for Scotussa.

(44) He was interrupted by his scouts with the surprise news that Pompey had moved his army down into the plain and offered battle. Plutarch summarises the battle lineup of both sides. The anecdote about brave centurion Caius Crastinus.

(45) Plutarch captures the central fact about the Battle of Pharsalus, fought on 8 August 48 BC, which is that, seeing the size of Pompey’s cavalry on his right, Caesar drew a percentage of cohorts from all his other legions and lined them up to create a fourth line on his right.

All Roman armies traditionally fought with three lines of infantry. Caesar’s decision to create a fourth line meant that, as Pompey’s cavalry fought its way through Caesar’s cavalry on the right, it was suddenly surprised by highly motivated infantry which it didn’t expect to find there. Moreover, the infantry had been carefully instructed to thrust their javelins up into the faces of the cavalry who were mostly young men and vain of their looks.

Amazingly, this tactic produced confusion and then flight. With the cavalry in retreat, Caesar’s fourth line then swivelled to attack Pompey’s centre from the rear, which, as a result of the unexpected pressure, began to collapse.

But by this time Pompey had realised the battle was lost and had fled the battlefield at sight of his cavalry in confusion. He sat in his tent until told that the enemy were mounting the walls of his camp, at which point he changed into mufti, took horse and fled the camp through a rear gate.

Plutarch leaves Pompey at that point, telling the reader he will describe Pompey’s flight to Egypt and murder in his Life of Pompey, which he does very well and very movingly.

(46) Caesar was angry and upset when he entered Pompey’s camp. He exclaimed: ‘They made me do this.’ Many of the dead were servants. Most of the defeated soldiers Caesar incorporated into his own army. Caesar was delighted when Marcus Junius Brutus was found and delivered to him alive.

(47) Plutarch lists some of the omens and prophecies of Caesar’s victory. Plutarch devotes a fair amount of time to relishing superstitious signs and omens around all his great men.

(48) Caesar gave the Thessalanians (inhabitants of the broader region around Pharsalis) their freedom, then set off in pursuit of Pompey. He went to Asia where he made Cnidius a free city, and remitted a third of Asia’s taxes.

It was when he arrived in Alexandria that he was presented with the severed head of Pompey by officers of the young pharaoh, Ptolemy, and turned away in disgust. Then ha was given Pompey’s signet ring and wept over it. Presented with Pompey’s companions who accompanied him to the end, Caesar forgave them and accepted them into his side.

He spends more time describing Egyptian politics, well, the slimey character of king Ptolemy’s chamberlain Potheinus. The dead king, Ptolemy Auletes had been declared a ‘friend’ of Rome during Caesar’s consulship in 59 BC. To achieve this he had promised a king’s ransom and Caesar now intended to collect it from his son.

(49) Cleopatra sneaks into the palace wrapped in a sleeping bag carried by her loyal servant Apollodorus the Sicilian. She inveigles her way into Caesar’s affections. At a banquet Caesar’s servant learns that Potheinus and the Egyptian general Achillas are plotting to assassinate Caesar. Caesar has Potheinus killed but Achillas escapes and raises an army which prompts The Alexandrine War, difficult to fight because it is street fighting.

Again, very briefy, Plutarch mentions the Egyptian attempts to cut off the Romans’ water supply, then to cut off supplies by ship, so that Caesar set fire to the ships in the harbour. He moves on to the fight to secure control of the Pharos which controlled entrance to the Great Harbour. The king went over to Achillas, prompting Caesar to a full scale battle, which he won. Then he departed Egypt, leaving Cleopatra as queen. Nine months later she bore his son, Caesarion. It’s all told like that – very fast and superficial. Plutarch is in a real hurry. Maybe he was bored. Maybe he realised he couldn’t compete with Caesar’s own accounts of the Gallic Wars and the Civil War.

(50) Very quickly Plutarch describes Caesar marching against King Pharnaces II of Pontus (June 47 BC), who had driven out the Roman forces and was allying with all the princes and tetrarchs, and defeating him at the battle of Zela. In announcing the swiftness and fierceness of this battle to one of his friends at Rome, Amantius, Caesar wrote three words Veni, vidi, vici – ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’.

BattleOfZela

Caesar’s route from Alexandria to Pontus, 47 BC

(51) Caesar returned to Rome. He arranged to be made consul for the following year, 46. He became unpopular through a series of unfortunate events:

  • his soldiers had mutinied and killed two men of praetorian rank, Galba and Cosconius, but instead of court martialling them he had them demobbed, paid 1,000 drachmas and allotted land in Italy
  • the irresponsible behaviour of the deputy he’d left in Rome, Publius Cornelius Dolabella
  • the greed of Amantius
  • the drunkenness of Antony
  • Corfinius built over and refurnished the house of Pompey on the ground that it was not good enough for him

Caesar would have liked to have acted more firmly against these powerful reprobates, but he needed allies.

(52) Cato and Scipio had escaped to Africa where they’d allied with King Juba. Caesar sailed to Africa via Sicily. There were repeated engagements as Caesar was short of provisions. The Numidian cavalry were quick, Plutarch tells of one occasion when Caesar’s cavalry were dismounted and enjoying an entertainment by a dancer playing the flute when the Numidians attacked, killing many and only Caesar rushing out the camp with infantry saved the day. In another attack Caesar grabbed the standard bearer who was running away, turned him round and pointed him towards the battle.

(53) The Battle of Thapsus 6 April 46 BC. Scipio was feeling confident. Leaving Afranius and Juba in camps of their own he begins building a camp beyond a lake near the city of Thapsus. But while he was still building it Caesar’s army moved with incredible speed, emerging from nearby woods to overpower the soldiers and defeat them, then marching on to also take Afranius and Juba’s camps. In one day he defeated three armies and killed 50,000. Plutarch gives a characteristically anecdotal (and macabre) addition by saying that one tradition says Caesar began to have an epileptic fit as he deployed the forces and victory was overseen by subordinates.

(54) Caesar’s long-time enemy Marcus Porcius Cato was in charge of the city of Utica. Caesar marched there only to find Cato had committed suicide, which vexed him. Plutarch considers whether he would have shown him mercy, as he did Brutus, Cicero and other opponents. Caesar wrote a book called Anti-Cato which suggests not. Then again it was intended as a rebuttal of Cicero’s book in praise of Cato so…

(55) Caesar now returned to Rome where he held an unprecedented four triumphs, and put on lavish public feasts and processions. A census was taken which showed the number listed had dropped from 320,000 to 150,000 indication of the disruption caused by war. [According to Suetonius’s Life of Caesar, this was not a census of all the people, but a revision of the number of poorer citizens entitled to receive allowances of grain from the state.]

(56) Then Caesar set out for Spain to fight the sons of Pompey. [This war certainly drags on, doesn’t it?] It was resolved at the epic Battle of Munda 17 March 45 BC, where Caesar admitted he really had to fight and was nearly defeated. Of the two sons of Pompey the younger escaped, and the head of the elder was brought to Caesar. He held another triumph in Rome to mark this victory in October 45 but it displeased the people. It was one thing conquering other nations, quite another flaunting the killing of Romans.

(57) Caesar has himself declared dictator for life. Senators and tribunes sycophantically competed to lard him with extravagant titles, which further alienated the people. But Caesar impressed by his clemency and forgiveness. There were no proscriptions and blood baths as per Sulla 40 years earlier. Instead he forgave and promoted former enemies, for example, Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus.

Pompey’s statues had been taken down but Caesar had them restored. His friends advised a bodyguard but Caesar insisted the affection of the people was the best protection. He distributed cheap grain and founded colonies for ex-soldiers, notably at the sites of ruined cities of Carthage and Corinth.

As sole rulers go he was, then, a singularly enlightened, fair and public spirited one.

(58) He won over the reluctant nobles (optimates) by promising consulships and praetorships. Plutarch dwells on Caesar’s immense ambition, his determination to outdo all other rulers and even himself. He planned to head east, conquer Parthia, then journey round the Black Sea conquering all the kingdoms, then return through Germany (conquering them) to Gaul, thus a tour of the empire. He planned to dig a canal through the isthmus of Corinth, reroute the Tiber, clear obstacles to shipping along the Italian coast. He was overflowing with plans for public works.

(59) He reformed the calendar.

(60) What made him generally unpopular was the rumour that he wanted to be made king. He denied it. When a crowd cried out Rex Rex, he said, ‘Non Rex sum sed Caesar’ – ‘I am not a king, I am Caesar’ (with a play on the fact that Rex was, improbably enough, a proper name in Rome).

There was the story that the whole Senate traipsed up to him as he sat on the rostrum to award him further honours but instead of getting up he remained seating, very discourteous. Caesar made the excuse that he felt his falling sickness coming on and didn’t want to embarrass himself. The fact that we are arguing about it 2,000 years later shows it struck a nerve.

(61) The story how at the Feast of the Lupercal (15 February) 44 Antony ran into the forum and offered Caesar a diadem, as of a crown. A handful of people clapped but when Caesar pushed it away everyone clapped. Was this a spontaneous event or a carefully contrived plan to test the water.

Then it was discovered that his statues had been decorated with royal diadems. Two tribunes went round tearing these down but Caesar had them arrested and spoke insultingly of them.

  1. Wanting to be king just doesn’t sound like the man you get to know by reading the Gallic Wars and the Civil War. Maybe he had been corrupted into considering kingship by his time in Egypt. But so much of the rest of his behaviour (consulting the Senate, giving pardoned enemies traditional magistracies) militates against wanting sole rule, that it isn’t consistent, it doesn’t make sense.
  2. In the event, the anti-monarchists struck their blow and ended up with another 15 years of civil war before getting someone considerably more monarchical than Caesar.

(62) Plutarch begins to describe the famous conspiracy against Caesar by profiling Brutus and listing the pressure he was put under by colleagues and conspirators to do something decisive, despite the mercy and many favours Caesar had shown him.

(63) Plutarch retales an impressive list of ill omens and prophecies including two different versions of the dream his wife Calpurnia was said to have had the night before his murder, and the prediction of the soothsayer about the Ides of March (which simply means the 15th of March). On that day Calpurnia begged him to delay that morning’s meeting with the Senate and he was swayed and influenced by her obvious distress.

(64) A different Brutus, Decimus Brutus, arrives to accompany Caesar to the Senate where, he tells Caesar, they were planning to vote to make Caesar king of all the provinces outside Rome. [This seems wholly unlikely to me, that either the Senate would offer this or Caesar would consider it). Decimus uses all the arguments he can think of to encourage Caesar to attend, because he is part of the conspiracy.

(65) Stories about a) a slave and b) the philosophy teacher Artemidorus, who both tried to hand Caesar notes warning him not to go, but either couldn’t get through the throng surrounding Caesar or Caesar was too busy to read the note.

(66) Plutarch is clearly trying to create psychological or literary effects, what with his chapter on evil omens, then the chapter on ill-fated attempts to warn Caesar, and now a chapter saying how ‘fated’ it was that the attack took place in one of the new buildings erected by Pompey in the Field of Mars. Poetic justice.

Caesar’s loyal lieutenant, Mark Antony, was a strong threatening man and so the conspirators arranged for him to be detained in conversation outside the Senate House by Brutus Albinus. Caesar entered the senate and was approached by a man named Tillius Cimber with a petition on behalf of his brother in exile. He accompanied Caesar all the way to his seat, and Caesar became thronged with other complainants and was becoming irritated when Tillius pulled down Caesar’s toga, exposing his neck, and that was the sign for the conspirators to stab Caesar.

He was said to receive 23 wounds in all till he lay convulsing at the bottom of a huge statue of Pompey whose base was covered in blood. It’s always seemed strange to me that it took so many dagger thrusts and he still didn’t die immediately but dodged and evaded. When he saw Brutus holding a dagger he is said to have given up resisting and covered his face with his toga.

(67) Brutus stepped back from the warm corpse and gave an eloquent speech to the Senate explaining why they’d done it, but the majority of the senators panicked and ran out, spreading rumours through the city. Rumour spread fast causing panic among the entire population, many running home and locking their doors. Antony and Lepidus went into hiding. Brutus and the chief conspirators walked to the Capitol holding their daggers, to proclaim that ‘liberty’ had been restored.

Next day Brutus made a speech to the people explaining what they had done and why which was greeted in silence. The Senate passed an act of amnesty in a bid to calm things. It was decided he was to be declared a god and no change made to any of the laws he had passed. Brutus and colleagues were given foreign provinces to govern in the usual fashion.

The question is really, not so much what motivated the conspirators, that’s obvious. It’s why the attempts to return to ‘normal’ republican government failed.

(68) It was when Caesars body was displayed in the forum that a great moaning of lamentation went up. And when his will was read it became clear how generous Caesar had been to the entire Roman population. The crowd constructed a funeral pyre from materials to hand and then turned into a mob and ran to attack the houses of the murderers. This mob stumbled across the harmless Caius Helvius Cinna and, mistaking him for one of the conspirators, Lucius Cornelius Cinna, tore him limb from limb.

In other words assassinating the ‘tyrant’ did absolutely nothing to still the street violence which had stained the 50s with blood. This lynching so terrified Brutus, Cassius and the rest that they fled the city. The rest is told in Plutarch’s life of Brutus.

(69) Summary: Caesar was 56 when he was struck down. Plutarch, with his spooky view of the world, is struck by the way that the fate that looked after Caesar in life pursued every one of the conspirators to untimely ends. [But then I realised some time ago that so did the triumvirs, first Crassus, then Pompey, then Caesar, all ignobly murdered with daggers and swords.]

Plutarch likes melodrama, such as the fact that after his side lost the battle of Philippi Cassius killed himself with the same dagger he’d used to kill Caesar. And that a great comet shone over Rome for a week after the murder, and for the entire summer the sun never properly shone but the land was covered in a fog and fruit and vegetables didn’t ripen properly.

And Plutarch ends his life on a spine-chiller: the story of the larger than life ghost – was it of Caesar –which appeared to Brutus on the eve of defeat at Philippi. Scooby, Scooby-doo!

Thoughts

Plutarch’s life of Caesar adds anecdotes and a big dollop of supernatural superstition to the record but skimps on any kind of political analysis and really skips over Caesar’s awesome military record, covering it with superficial speed and half heartedly. I think this is the worst of Plutarch’s lives. Maybe by 100 or so AD when he was writing them, the story was too well known and had been covered by too many other writers, to really engage him.


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The world of Stonehenge @ the British Museum

This is an awe-inspiring exhibition, in at least two senses of the word:

  • it is huge and includes a whopping 430 exhibits, far more than the human mind can reasonably process and relate to
  • and it chronicles the strange and fugitive world of late Stone Age and Bronze Age spirituality, life and society, over a huge time period and a very wide geographical range

Stonehenge © English Heritage

The exhibition is about much more than Stonehenge. The Stonehenge material represents only about 10 or 15% of the content. Sure, Stonehenge provides the central structure to the exhibition, but timewise it covers a much longer period, opening nearly five thousand years before the earliest workings at Stonehenge, in around 10,000 BC, and ending thousands of years after it had ceased to be an active religious monument, about 1000 BC.

Similarly the exhibition isn’t restricted to the stones and burials mounds in Wiltshire but ranges far, far further afield, introducing us to breath-taking archaeological discoveries from Wales and Ireland, from religious offerings at Grimes Graves in Norfolk to a blizzard of recent archaeological discoveries made in the remote Orkney Islands. There are countless strange and haunting objects like the beautiful carved balls, about the size of a tennis ball but carved from stone with a variety of geometric markings, made in eastern Scotland. There are objects from sites in Brittany, north Germany and Denmark, Spain and as far afield as Switzerland and Italy, all accompanied by elaborate commentary and explication.

So the story of Stonehenge is just the central thread or scaffold which the curators use to structure a far-reaching investigation of all aspects of late Stone Age and Bronze Age cultures, not only in Britain but further afield. As the catalogue puts it:

Stonehenge itself acts as a useful gateway and reference point for exploring the chronology of this ancient world. (Catalogue page 18)

It’s tempting to call it a portrait of an age or a window into a distant world except that, as the exhibition makes very clear, in the ten or so millennia it covers, Britain and Europe moved through a whole series of eras and worlds, each with their own distinctive economic, technological and artistic characteristics.

Keeping track of the multitudinous series of changes, trying to process the 430 objects with their huge variety of shapes and sizes and meanings and contexts, while also trying to keep a grip on the key stages of Stonehenge’s evolution, proves a daunting challenge. It was too much for me to really take it all in but I found it helped if I kept in mind the three really huge changes or revolutions in human society which occurred during the period 10,000 to 1,000 BC.

Three revolutions

1. Britain becomes an island

10,000 years ago Britain was joined to the continent by an extensive body of land. To put it another way, what are now the British Isles were then one more wiggly peninsula sticking out into the Atlantic, like Scandinavia or Spain. This extensive stretch of land is called Doggerland by modern scholars (after Dogger Bank which was once a stretch of high land and is now a notable shallow area of the North Sea). Modern research suggests it was a fertile area of tundra which was populated by large mammals and humans who would have access to good fishing.

Around 6,200 BC this vast stretch of land was flooded, slowly at first and latterly by a series of tidal waves, separating Britain from the continent. The people who lived on it must have moved west into Britain or east into Europe unaware that their descendants would become cut off from each other.

Map of north-west Europe about 10,000 years ago showing the extensive area of low-lying land which joined Britain to Holland and Denmark and which archaeologists refer to as Doggerland

2. The agricultural revolution

After the great separation, Britain was inhabited by a tiny number of hunter gatherers, maybe as few as 5,000. Imagine the native Americans of North America moving carefully through the forests of ancient Britain, living in awe of the natural world.

Then, about 6,000 years ago, the culture of farming arrived in Britain, marking the beginning of the Neolithic period (New Stone Age). There has been prolonged debate in the world of archaeology about whether the secrets of agriculture were spread to the native inhabitants or whether it was newcomers and immigrants who brought it with them. Modern DNA analysis of bones suggests the latter.

Agriculture can support a far larger population than hunting and gathering. Agriculture also produces surpluses which can feed non-productive members of the community, in the classic model of the Fertile Crescent, kings, priests and soldiers. There’s no direct evidence for any of these groups but the immense amount of physical labour required to quarry, transport and erect the stones of Stonehenge a) required the availability of people who weren’t required for agricultural work and b) someone to conceive, design, organise and supervise the work.

Each of the huge sarsen stones in the henge required at least 1,000 people to transport from their source 25 kilometres away. It took generations to complete the full design. What kind of society was able to do that?

As well as social change, the advent of agriculture leads to a profound psychological and cultural transformation. Hunter gatherers move through the landscape, placating its animals and spirits, knowing they are as transient as all the other forest creatures. With agriculture come roots, in multiple senses. People now believed that they owned the land, and monuments like the henge became markers of communal ownership and identity. In turn they became special places for burying the dead and for interring objects related to them. Multiple layers of meaning build up around ancestral land in a way which wasn’t conceivable for the hunter gatherers who moved through it without leaving a trace.

3. Bronze Age

The Bronze Age in Britain lasted from around 2500 to 800 BC. It was heralded by the arrival of the Beaker People, so-called because suddenly British graves are full of beakers of a size and shape which weren’t found earlier. The Bronze Age is generally sub-divided into an earlier phase (2500 to 1200 BC) and a later one (1200 to 800 BC). It is followed by the so-called Iron Age.

The arrival of the knowledge of how to smelt metals and shape them into treasures and weapons, about 4,500 years ago, transformed British society. In a nutshell, society became more selfish and violent. We know from their grave goods that neolithic peoples had some treasured possessions, axeheads, necklaces of teeth and the like. But the existence of Stonehenge and other comparable structures suggest that their culture or religion was communal and led to the creation of shared, communal edifices.

The latter part of the exhibition shows how all this changed with the advent of precious metals. Relatively small objects acquired immense value. In a sense religion became personalised. Instead of going into the creation of communal buildings which embodied shared beliefs and rituals, metal goods allowed religious feelings to be inscribed on images and objects which could be owned, shared, traded and gifted. The solstice positions which took such an immense effort to inscribe into a vast building and into the landscape, 500 years later was being inscribed into shiny portable objects. The entire concept of the religious and spiritual must have fundamentally changed.

And so Stonehenge fell out of use. It still existed as an awe-inspiring testament to the past, like a great cathedral, but now instead of being the focus of communal beliefs, it becomes surrounded by graves of the newly rich with all their precious metal goods, much like medieval kings and princes wanting to be buried inside a cathedral, for the prestige. The emphasis changed from building communal monuments to raising mounds in cemeteries for the purpose of celebrating powerful individuals. The 40 plus burial mounds which surround Stonehenge indicate a switch of focus away from community to family and status.

Not only is gold portable, it is stealable. The exhibition ends with a corridor packed with evidence of a new wave of violence which swept through Britain, testifying to the rise of a more selfish, fracture, war-torn society.

Earlier sections of the show displayed primitive but beautiful objects in a variety of decorative styles. The corridor of death showcases lots of swords and skeletons displaying signs of violent ends. One of the most startling things in the whole exhibition is a wall of skulls and bones, embedded in something like dried mud and attached to a very big panel stuck on the wall. It looks like an art installation but it is here to memorialise a big battle fought at the river Tollense by up to 4,000 men, aged between 20 and 40 sometime in the 1200s BC.

The wall of bones from the battlefield of Tollense, north Germany, where a major battle took place in the 13th century BC, used to indicate the way the advent of metal smelting signalled the descent into a more acquisitive, violent society

The final corridor of the exhibition is full of swords and shields and battle helmets and skulls with holes in them. A new age had dawned.

Stonehenge’s complexity

Use of Stonehenge as a chassis for the show adds multiple further layers of complexity because Stonehenge – on the face of it the series of concentric stone circles familiar to all of us – is, in archaeological terms, itself fantastically complicated: not only is there lots that is still uncertain about the henge itself, but it lies at the heart of what, with every passing year, is being revealed as a bewilderingly complex landscape covered with ancient ruins, burials, tracks, pits, roads, barrows and so on.

What we call Stonehenge is a series of monuments, of concentric rings of standing stones, earthworks and ditches believed to have been built and extended over a 1,000 year period between 3000 to 2000 BC. Stonehenge itself consists of an outer ring of vertical sarsen standing stones, each around 13 feet high, seven feet wide, and weighing around 25 tons, topped by connecting horizontal lintel stones. Within this circle is a ring of smaller bluestones (though I can’t say they look any different in colour from the outer sarsen stones). Inside these are free-standing trilithons, two bulkier vertical Sarsens joined by one lintel. The stone circle is surrounded by a circular earth bank and ditch which have been dated to about 3100 BC. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the first bluestones were raised between 2400 and 2200 BC.

Stonehenge © English Heritage

But there’s a lot more to it than that. Right inside the ditch and bank is a circle of 56 pits, each about a metre in diameter, known as the Aubrey holes. These may have contained standing timbers creating a timber circle or they may have been used to erect a bluestone circle. No conclusive evidence exists either way. Both at the immediate site and in the area around the henge there are numerous other archaeological sites and remains, many of which remain puzzling.

Recent discoveries

A little further afield over 20 burial sites and barrows have been identified, plus the Lesser Cursus and the structure called Coneybury Henge, and new discoveries are continually being made. Only recently has the ‘avenue’ which leads off from the north-east of the circle been traced all the way to the River Avon and here, in 2008 a previously unknown circular area was discovered which probably housed four further stones, most likely as a marker for the starting point of the ceremonial ‘avenue’.

In 2014 investigations using ground-penetrating radar equipment revealed as many as seventeen new monuments around the nearby settlement of Durrington, 2 miles north-east of Stonehenge, which itself has been shown to be a highly populated centre in the period between 2600 and 2400 BC.

In 2020 a geophysical survey at Durrington uncovered a number of pits, some natural sink holes and others apparently modified to hold massive timbers, interpreted as belonging to a 1.2-mile-wide circle 10-metre pits of Neolithic age. If this interpretation is correct, this would be Britain’s largest prehistoric monument.

In 2021 initial excavations to build a long tunnel in which to bury A303 have revealed a treasure trove of Bronze Age finds. Basically the entire area is riddled with burials and evidence of numerous other buildings, banks and ditches and barrows. It is holy ground, criss-crossed with memories, legacies, multiple layers of succeeding generations and cultures.

Dagger from the Bush Barrow grave goods (with replica handle) 1950 to 1600 BC. Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. Photograph by David Bukach © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

The sun

Throughout the changing eras, the curators emphasise the mystical and religious aspects of the  changing populations and cultures. At the heart of many of these belief was the sun. Obviously the sun has been worshipped by almost all societies as the source of warmth and light, but it has a special significance for agricultural societies which need light and heat to grow the crops on which they depend and so a central theme running through the exhibition is the importance of images and symbols of, and materials believed to be connected with, the sun.

Stonehenge itself was aligned in such a way that the north-east ‘entrance’ to the site precisely matched the direction of the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset, something which is open to all kinds of interpretations. Some people think it was a device for measuring the solstices, for marking time and agricultural processes, or maybe it had a religious purpose i.e. was used to invoke the sun or celebrate the advent of spring. Maybe it was a way of humanising, of bringing down to a human scale, the vast impersonal forces of nature. All these theories and more abound.

And it wasn’t a one-off. The curators describe a number of other neolithic henges and constructions which were deliberately orientated around the angle of the sun at its solstices, for example the communal enclosure at Larkhill which was built some 700 years before Stonehenge. Knowledge of the sun’s movements and worship of it at specially constructed sites existed for almost a thousand years before building began at Stonehenge.

The sun acquired a kind of new importance or urgency with the arrival of metal smelting at the start of the Bronze Age. The curators explain that burnished metal reflected sunlight and could be thought of as not only reflecting it but in some sense capturing it and partaking of its qualities. None more so than gold and the later part of the exhibition is awash with dramatic gold jewellery, necklaces, torcs and helmets. These included the objects known as lunulae, from the Latin meaning ‘little moon’, crescent-shaped early Bronze Age necklaces or collars.

Lunula, 2400 to 2000 BC from Blessington, County Wicklow, Republic of Ireland. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The wall labels tell us that the inner and outer edges were very finely decorated but the main body of the lunula was left plain in order to better reflect sunlight. If you own an object, a bracelet, necklace, mirror which reflects sunlight, do you in some sense own that bit of sunlight?

Religion and spirituality

Huge stones like the standing sarsens at Stonehenge are commonly interpreted by modern scholars as connecting the earth and the sky – bigger, higher and heavier than any human being, connecting human time and celestial time.

But it wasn’t the big shiny things that took my imagination, it was the eerie and peripheral objects. And I warmed more to many of the pre-metal age objects, less flash and shiny, but more earthy and mysterious.

In the fen country of Somerset a neolithic walkway made of wood has been discovered. Crossed beams of coppiced alder wood which does not rot when it is waterlogged supported a narrow walk of planks. It has been dated to 3,800 BC. So far so practical. But it seems that well-hewn axe heads and other precious objects were deliberately included in its foundations – offerings to the water gods or vouchsafing the builders’ seriousness?

General view of the first part of the exhibition showing the remains of a neolithic wooden trackway across Avalon marshes in Somerset, c.3800 BC. Next to it is a case displaying some of the axe heads found at its base. On the wall on the right is an animation showing oxen and a cart they would have pulled, reconstructed from skeletons found in a neolithic grave.

Five highlights

The curators are at pains to highlight a handful of really outstanding loans which lift the show into the blockbuster category. Thus, in chronological order:

The Bad Dürrenberg shaman

One of the earliest cases hold the deer skull and antlers and necklaces of teeth and other accoutrements associated with the skeleton of a woman buried near the modern German town of Bad Dürrenberg and a haunting artist’s impression of what she would have looked like.

Artist’s impression of the Bad Dürrenberg shaman in her full regalia c.7000 BC © State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt

This woman was aged between 25 and 35 when she died some 9,000 years ago and was honoured with a very rich burial indicating the privileged place she held in her society. She was buried in a sitting position with the body of a baby between her legs. Both bodies were covered in ochre paint. Why?

The grave contained a great diversity of animal remains including a necklace made from the teeth of many species and a polished boar tooth talisman, all presumably with symbolic importance long ago lost.

Analysis of the woman’s skeleton has revealed that her uppermost cervical vertebra was malformed and that blood vessels in the lower skull area could have been spatially restricted. Or, as the curators put it, she would have had the ability to make herself faint and ‘to enter trance states’.  This rare ability, they guess, was the cause of the respect with which she was interred.

This is the oldest burial site in all Germany, but the exhibition correlates it with similar finds of hollowed out deer skulls found at the neolithic treasure trove of Star Carr in North Yorkshire. Headdresses were made by removing the lower half of the deer skull, cleaning away the brain and blood and boring two holes in the bone, probably for straps, so that the wearer could become half human, half deer, and – presumably – able to communicate with the animal world or perform spells and magic to propitiate it.

Seahenge

In 1998 the tops of a circle of tree trunks was spotted emerging from the mud at the coastal Norfolk village of Holme next the sea. Archaeologists set to work and we now know it was built around 4050 BC on a saltmarsh, at a position halfway between sea and land. It was quickly nicknamed Seahenge or the ‘Stonehenge of the Sea’.

Seahenge consists of a large upturned tree stump surrounded by 54 wooden posts. The oak posts, some up to 3 metre tall, were tightly packed in a 6.6 metre diameter circle with their bark-covered sides facing outwards. Inside the circle was a large oak tree oak, its roots upturned towards the heavens like branches. Collectively the circle creates a giant tree. A narrow entranceway was aligned on the rising midsummer sun and it is thought the monument was used for ritual purposes.

Seahenge at the time of excavation © Wendy George

Nobody knows why it was built where it was or what its purpose was. Perhaps the central upturned trunk was used in funerary rituals to support a dead body. Perhaps entering the circular shrine brought worshippers closer to the otherworld.

it is one of the coups of the exhibition that many (not all) of the original trunks have been brought to London and re-erected in the British Museum. It is accompanied by a special soundscape commissioned from Rob St John, which plays quietly from concealed loudspeakers so that you walk into (and then out of) its ambient zone.

The Nebra sky disc

The Nebra Sky Disc from about 1,600 BC is the oldest surviving representation of the cosmos anywhere in the world. It is a phenomenal and awe-inspiring object, one of the top treasures in the exhibition.

Sky Disc, Germany, about 1600 BC. Photo courtesy of the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt, Juraj Lipták

The shapes of beaten gold are supposed to represent the moon in its various phases. The dots clearly represent stars and experts have realised that the distinctive rosette of stars between the round and crescent moon represents the Pleiades. these stars play a key role in an ancient rule, known from a 2,700 year old Babylonian text, that allowed the shorter lunar year to be synchronised with the longer solar year. the rule is that a leap month should be added every third year if a crescent moon a few days old appears next to the Pleiades in the springtime sky.

Other treasures

3,500 years ago the appearance of new objects and symbols in a range of locations across Europe suggest that a more complex model of the cosmos was emerging. In Scandinavia images of the sun, the horse and the ship acquired religious force. In central Europe two waterbirds connected by a boat-shaped body below a sun became widespread. Examples of both are included from a hoard found in Denmark and dating from around 1,000 BC.

A grave within spitting distance of Stonehenge, the Bush Barrow site, includes the ‘gold lozenge’ which is the finest example of Bronze Age gold craftsmanship ever found in Britain, buried across the chest of the Bush Barrow chieftain.

The gold lozenge of the Bush Barrow grave goods, 1950 to 1600 BC Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. Photographs taken by David Bukach. © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

The exhibition includes two rare and remarkable gold cone-shaped hats from around 1600 BC, the Schifferstadt gold hat from Germany and the Avanton gold cone from France. They are decorated with elaborate solar motifs that reflect the religious importance of the sun during this era. Only four examples of these hats are known to have survived. Serving as headgear during ceremonies or rituals, perhaps they endowed the wearer with divine or otherworldly status.

The Schifferstadt gold hat, c. 1600 BC, which was found with three bronze axes Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer

Respect

I attended the press launch of the exhibition where we were treated to an address by the curator, Neil Wilkins. He said many interesting things about the purpose of the exhibition and some of the star exhibits, but one stood out for me. He said that among its many purposes, one aim of the exhibition was to introduce us to specific ancient individuals. He said he and his fellow curators wanted us to meet these people and take them on their own terms and try to enter their world(s).

He was referring to the powerful image of the Bad Dürrenberg shaman, but to others as well. To the man widely called the Amesbury Archer, a man whose grave, found close to the henge, contained the richest array of items ever found in a Bronze Age burial site in the UK. No fewer than 39 of these objects – copper knives, gold ornaments and flint tools – are in the show. Even more arresting is that modern DNA techniques show that the archer originally came from modern-day Switzerland or Germany. What an odyssey he had been on!

Another treasure I haven’t mentioned yet is the Burton Agnes drum. This is a carved chalk cylinder or ‘drum’ dated from 3005 to 2890 BC which was found in 2015 near Burton Agnes in the East Riding of Yorkshire. The Museum has described it as ‘one of the most significant ancient objects ever found on the British Isles’ because of the skill of its creation and decoration. But the real point is that it was found in the grave of three children who were carefully buried so that they appear to have been touching and maybe even holding hands. And the ‘drum’ contains in its top three perfectly drilled holes, presumably relating to the dead children. What? Why?

These are the kind of people Wilkins was describing in his address, people like us and deserving of our respect.

This, I reflected as I listened to his presentation, seems to me to mark a shift in museum culture. God knows I’ve been to numerous exhibitions and museums over the decades and seen countless skulls and skeletons of the ancient dead. But Wilkins’ address made explicit a new mood, a new feeling which runs through the exhibition and which gently brings out the humanity of all these long dead people.

These are not exhibits, they are people. Subtly, alongside the wood and metal remains, we are introduced to individuals. Due to DNA analysis we know more about them than ever before. We know that the Amesbury Archer was buried along with his great grandson. We know about the physical complaint which was the Bad Dürrenberg shaman’s blessing and maybe her curse. We can accurately date the three children found with the Agnes Burton drum.

It may sound silly but I found Wilkins’ words very moving. He was indicating the way that the exhibition may well document the big social changes over this huge range of time, and the awesome human effort involved in creating the henge, and the cosmological beliefs associated with it; it certainly gives exhaustive scholarly explanations of the hundreds of objects on display – all done in what you could call the traditional museological style.

But at the same time it introduces us to a number of long-dead individuals who, although we don’t know their names or ethnicity or lives or histories, doesn’t make them any the less human and valid. They lived their lives in this country, among family and friends and community, struggled to find food, to survive in an often hostile environment, crafted religious and domestic objects, created communal buildings and edifices, had deep experiences, laughed, cried, got sick and died.

And I found this idea, that transcending the information and the countless objects it contains, this exhibition enables personal encounters with people dead nearly 10,000 years, far more moving than any of the more obvious symbols of neolithic and bronze age spirituality. Call it the religion of humanity.

Stonehenge at dawn © English Heritage


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SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) 7. The empire

If you’re looking for a chronological history of the Roman Empire, or an account of the military campaigns and battles which led to its territorial expansion, or an account of the organisation and administration of the Roman army, during either the republican or imperial eras, forget it. None of that is in this book.

Beard’s interest is in exploring themes or aspects of Roman social, cultural and political history. Hence, although the final chapter in SPQR is devoted to ‘Rome Outside Rome’ i.e. the wider Roman empire, it is nothing like a chronological history of the empire, or of the wars of conquest and putting down of rebellions which consolidated it, or a really thorough examination of Rome’s administrative bureaucracy. Instead it is an entertainingly meandering essay which considers some selected aspects of Roman rule beyond Italy. Beard starts the chapter, as usual, with a flurry of academic questions:

  • how were the cultural differences across the empire debated?
  • how ‘Roman’ did the empire’s inhabitants outside Rome and Italy become?
  • how did people in the provinces relate their traditions, religions, languages and literatures to those of imperial Rome, and vice versa?

Beard uses biographies of Roman administrators such as Pliny the Younger (61 to 113 AD), touches on the Roman attitude to religion – especially the troublesome new religion of Christianity – uses Hadrian’s Wall as an example of the limits of empire, and generally delves into other topics which take her fancy.

So, as a reader, as soon as you abandon any hope of getting a thorough or even basic chronological overview of the main events of the wider Roman empire, and settle down for a chatty meander through  some selected aspects of a fascinating subject, then Beard is an enjoyable and informative guide.

The limits of imperial expansion

Augustus called a halt to the expansion of imperial Rome following the disastrous Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD in which Publius Quinctilius Varus lost three legions massacred by barbarian Germans led by Arminius (p.480). Fascinatingly, Beard tells us that Augustus had fully intended to extend Roman power into Germany, and had begun construction of a town at Waldgirmes, 60 miles east of the Rhine, complete with forum, statue of the emperor and all the trimmings. After Teutoburg he ordered all building work abandoned and withdrawal of all Roman forces to the Rhine and in his will instructed his successors not to extend the empire.

But they did. Claudius sent legions to conquer Britannia, which they’d seized enough of by 44 AD to justify Claudius awarding himself a triumph, although the Romans took a long time to extend their power right up to the border with Hibernia. In the east, in 101 to 102 Trajan conquered Dacia, part of what is now Romania and in 114 to 117 invaded Mesopotamia to the borders of modern Iran.

Emperors less competitive than consuls

But overall the pace of territorial acquisition slowed right down. Beard makes the interesting point that this was at least in part because under the Republic you had two consuls who competed with each other for military glory, rising to the epic rivalry between Julius Caesar, busy making a name for himself conquering Gaul in the West, and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, known in English as Pompey, redrawing the map of the Roman East.

By contrast, the emperors had no rivals and no-one to beat. Their only rivals were the previous emperors so they could take their time, make a few strategic ‘conquests’, award themselves a nice triumph and relax. Most of the wars of the first 200 years of empire were against internal rebellions or border skirmishes.

Governor Pliny in Bithynia

Slowly the focus of administrators and emperors switched from conquest to good administration. It’s to examine this that Beard gives the example of Pliny the Younger who in 109 was sent to become governor of the province of Bithynia along the southern coast of the Black Sea in what is now Turkey. Next to Cicero Pliny is one of the most knowable ancient Romans because of the 100 or so letters he sent directly to the emperor Trajan, reporting back on all aspects of Roman administration, from taxes to statues, to the nitty gritty of local legal cases.

What the Romans wanted was peaceful administration, avoidance of flagrant examples of corruption, good regular supplies of taxes. They made little or no attempt to impose their own cultural norms or eradicate local traditions. Instead the East, in particular, remained a mostly Greek-speaking fantasia of different religions, gods, festivals, dress, traditions and so on.

Small number of imperial administrators

In a striking similarity to the British Empire, Beard tells us the number of imperial administrators was vanishingly small: across the empire at any one time there were probably fewer than 200 elite Roman administrators running an empire of more than 50 million subjects (p.490). So how was the empire managed?

1. The most obvious answer is the substantial Roman legions posted around the borders of the empire and Beard mentions the insight we have into one such garrison from the amazing discoveries which have been made at Vindolanda, on Hadrian’s Wall.

2. Building new settlements was another strategy. In the north and west in particular the building of Roman settlements on the classic, standardised Roman town layout was one of the most enduring legacies of empire. Roman policy resulted in ‘urbanisation on an unprecedented scale’ (p.492).

3. Also, just like the British, French and other European empires 1,800 years later, the Romans co-opted the local elites. Local rulers who came over to Rome were awarded formal titles, new Roman names, rights and privileges. They took to wearing the toga, they sent their children to Roman schools to learn Latin, rhetoric and civics. Over generations these became embedded and Romanised elites did the work of ensuring peace and lack of rebellions among their subjects.

The 1st century efflorescence of Greek literature

In the East, the Greeks didn’t need to take any lessons in ‘civilisation’ from the Romans and no Roman would have dared suggest it. Nonetheless, Beard points out that the early imperial period saw an extraordinary florescence of Greek literature, much of it addressing, skirting, questioning the impact of Roman hegemony on the Greek world. In a striking example, she tells us that the output of just one Greek writer of this period, biographer and philosopher Plutarch (46 to 119 AD) fills as many modern pages as all the surviving literature from the 5th century BC put together, from the tragedies of Aeschylus to the histories of Thucydides (p.500).

Three typical rebellions

Surprisingly, maybe, there were only a handful of major rebellions against Roman rule in the first century (although it may be that these were under-reported, as both regional governors and emperors weren’t keen to record dissent).

Anyway, Beard makes the interesting point that the three major rebellions we know about weren’t standalone nationalist uprisings of the kind we’re familiar with from the end of the modern European empires. In the three biggest instances they were not popular uprisings but rebellions by members of the collaborating class felt they had, for one reason or another, been badly treated by their Roman allies.

1. Thus the leader of the German forces in the Teutoburg Forest, Arminius, was a solid ally of Rome and personal friend of the general whose forces he massacred. Modern thinking has it that Arminius was a rival for leadership of his tribe, the Cherusci, with his brother, Segeste. When a revolt began among the auxiliary troops for an unknown reason, it may be that Arminius thought he stood more chance of becoming paramount leader of his people by betraying his Roman allies (and brother) and it seems to have worked.

2. In Britannia, Queen Boadicea or Boudicca rebelled after terrible treatment by the Romans. When her husband Prasutagus died he left half his tribal kingdom to the empire and half to his daughters. But when Roman forces moved in to take their territory they ran amok among the Britons, plundering the king’s property, raping  his daughters and flogging Boudicca. Hence her armed revolt, and you can see why her tribe would rally to her standard, whose first steps were to burn to the ground the nearest three Roman towns, murdering all their inhabitants, before the governor of the province, 250 miles away on the border of Wales, heard the news, marched across country to East Anglia, and exterminated the British forces (p.514).

3. The First Jewish War or Great Jewish Revolt (66 to 73 AD) is also attributable to bad behaviour by the occupying Romans. The middle classes protested against heavy Roman taxation and there were some random attacks on Roman citizens. In response the Roman governor, Gessius Florus, raided the Second Temple (where no non-Jew was allowed to enter) for back payment of the taxes, then arrested senior Jewish figures some of whom he had crucified for disobedience. Bad idea. The rebellion spread like wildfire and pinned down Roman legions in Palestine for the next seven years.

Free movement of goods and people

Another massive effect of the Roman Empire was the free movement of goods and people on an unprecedented scale. Among the ruins of Pompeii has been found an ivory figurine from India, the soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall were buying pepper brought all the way from the Far East. Vast amounts of olive oil (20 million litres per year) were imported to Rome from southern Spain and the province of Africa became the breadbasket for the capital (250,000 tonnes of grain).

Not only goods but people moved vast distances, making lives and careers for themselves thousands of miles from their birthplaces in a way that was unprecedented for most of world history before. Beard exemplifies this astonishing freedom of movement in the story of Barates who was working near Hadrian’s Wall in the second century AD, and built a memorial to his wife who predeceased him and came from just north of London. The point is that Barates himself, as his memorial  records, originally hailed from Syria, 4,000 miles away.

Trade and administration, imports and exports, sending soldiers and administrators to the ends of the known world, involved a huge amount of bureaucracy and organisation, many fragments of which have survived to build up a picture of the empire’s multi-levelled commercial and administrative complexity.

The people, group or ideology this free movement around the entire Mediterranean basin was ultimately to benefit most were the Christians. Familiarity with the life of St Paul shows just how free they were to travel freely and to spread their word to the ‘godfearers’, the groups who attached themselves to Jewish synagogues but couldn’t become full Jews because of their lack of circumcision and/or the food and ritual restrictions, so who were an enthusiastic audience for the non-ethnic, universalising tendency of  the new religion.

It is this principle of openness and assimilation, which characterised Rome from the earliest times when Romulus incorporated members of neighbouring tribes into his nascent settlement, that I briefly describe in the next blog post.


Credit

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard was published in 2015 by Profile Books. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

Empire Lite: Nation-Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan by Michael Ignatieff (2003)

Nobody likes empires but there are some problems for which there are only imperial solutions. (p.11)

Nations sometimes fail, and when they do only outside help – imperial help – can get them back on their feet. (p.106)

A bit of biography

In the 1990s Ignatieff managed to combine being a tenured academic, a journalist making extensive foreign trips, and a TV presenter. Without planning it, Ignatieff fell into a rhythm of publishing every 2 or 3 years short books chronicling the unfolding of the failed states he visited, and the chaos which engulfed some countries after the end of the Cold War.

These short but engaging studies build up into a series of snapshots of the new world disorder unfolding through the 1990s and into the post 9/11 era, mixed with profound meditations on the morality of international affairs and humanitarian intervention:

  • Blood and Belonging: Journeys Into the New Nationalism (1994)
  • Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience (1997)
  • Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond (2000)
  • Empire Lite: Nation-Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan (2003)
  • The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (2004)
  • The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World (2017)

Ignatieff’s disappearance from British TV and radio around 2000 is explained by the fact that he moved  from London to America to take up a post at Harvard. The gap in the sequence of books listed above is explained by the fact that in 2005 he was persuaded to stand as an MP in the Canadian parliament, that in 2006 was made deputy leader of the Canadian Liberal Party and in 2009 became Liberal Party leader. Under his leadership the Liberals lost badly in the election of 2011 and Ignatieff quit as party leader. He went back to teaching at university, in betweentimes undertaking extended trips to eight non-Western nations which form the basis of his most recent book, The Ordinary Virtues published in 2017.

Empire Lite: Introduction

Three of the four chapters in this book started out as magazine articles published in 2002, so very soon after the seismic shock of 9/11. The premise of the book as a whole is that America is an empire which refuses to acknowledge the fact.

The Americans have had an empire since Teddy Roosevelt, yet persist in believing they do not. (p.1)

But America is not like any previous empire, it doesn’t have direct control of colonies, it is an ’empire lite’, which Ignatieff defines as:

hegemony without colonies, a global sphere of influence without the burden of direct administration and the risk of daily policing. (p.2)

Nonetheless, America is the only global superpower, spends a fortune on an awesome array of military weapons and resources, and uses these ‘to permanently order the world of states and markets according to its national interests’ (p.2). Imperial activities.

In this book Ignatieff sets out to look at the power and, in particular, the limits of America’s informal empire by looking at three locations he knows well and has covered in previous books, in former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. Previously he has covered states collapsing into anarchy and attempts to bring peace, now he moves on. This book:

deals with the imperial struggle to impose order once intervention has taken place. (p.vii)

It focuses on the dilemma that many states in the modern world are failed or failing and some kind of intervention is emphatically required – and yet intervention is dogged with problems, notably:

  • the practical limitations of what can be achieved
  • the tension between what the intervening power (almost always America) wants to achieve, and the wishes of the local population

After 9/11

This book was written during the year following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, after George Bush had declared a ‘War on Terror’, and just as America was limbering up to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein on the controversial pretext of confiscating his weapons of mass destruction. This book was completed and sent to the publishers in January 2003 and the invasion of Iraq began on 20 March 2003.

In other words it was conceived and written in a very different climate of opinion than his pre-9/11 works and 9/11 dominates its thinking. Ignatieff says ‘the barbarians’ have attacked the imperial capital and now they are being punished.

And yet he warns that the ‘War on Terror’ may turn into a campaign without end. He quotes Edward Gibbon who, in his history of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, attributes the fall to what is nowadays called ‘overstretch’, trying to extend imperial control to regions beyond its natural borders. The Americans cannot control outcomes everywhere. This book sets out to examine the ragged edges where American hegemony reaches its limits.

Ignatieff says the terrorists who attacked on 9/11 co-opted grievances and the rhetoric of Islam into an unabashed act of violence. Violence first, cause later. What is worrying is the huge wave of support they garnered in parts of the Islamic world which feels it has been oppressed and humiliated for generations. It’s not just the obvious example of the Palestinians, oppressed by America’s client state Israel (Ignatieff mentions the pitiful inadequacy of the 1990 ‘peace treaty’ which set up the Palestinian Authority) but of dissident voices all across the Arab world.

9/11 highlighted the limitations of American control in Islamic states. America has poured billions of dollars into Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and yet Osama bin Laden was a Saudi and the Pakistanis founded, trained and supervised the Taliban which was giving Al Qaeda hospitality at the time of the attacks. And, as we have seen just a month ago, the Taliban were to prove impossible to extirpate and have just retaken Afghanistan after 20 years of supposed ‘nation building’.

America may have unrivalled power but it has not been able to build stability wherever it wants on its own terms. (p.10)

Problems of empire

Ignatieff bubbles over with ideas and insights. I was struck by his idea that the central problem of empires is deciding which of the many demands for the exercise of its power, it should respond to. This is a fascinating insight to apply to the history of the British Empire, which was a continual one of never having enough resources to properly deal with the endless flare-ups and problems in the numerous countries it claimed to manage. Eventually it became too expensive and too complicated for a country brought to its knees by two world wars, and we walked away. The mystery is how we hung on for so long.

Now the Americans face the same problem. Ignatieff interprets the crisis in Afghanistan as a result of the way the Americans spent ten years lavishly funding and supporting the anti-Soviet resistance (in reality a congeries of regional tribal groupings which we gave the blanket name the mujihadeen). Then, when the Soviets withdrew in 1989, so did the Americans; walking away and letting the highly-armed tribal groups collapse into prolonged civil war, out of which emerged the extremist Taliban who were to give shelter and succour to al-Qaeda ten years later.

Another way of putting this is that America hoped, with the end of the Cold War, to benefit from a ‘peace dividend’: to reduce its armed forces, withdraw from various strategic parts of the world, job done. On the contrary, as Ignatieff’s previous books have shown, imperial withdrawal from countries around the world did not lead to an outburst of peace, love and understanding but to the complete or partial collapse of many states and the emergence of new kinds of conflict, of ethnic wars, ‘ragged wars’, chaotic wars, and widespread destabilisation.

In these zones of chaos have flourished enemies of the West, and of America in particular and now, in 2002, as Ignatieff was writing these pieces, American rulers have to make some very difficult decisions about where to intervene and how much to intervene, and for how long.

Chapter 1. The Bridge Builder

The bridge in question is the bridge over the River Neretva in the centre of the town of Mostar in southern Bosnia. The town actually takes its name from the bridge, which is called the Stari Most (Old Bridge) in Serbo-Croat and the bridge-keepers, known as mostari, who guarded it.

The Stari Most was built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, is one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most visited landmarks, and is considered an exemplary piece of Islamic architecture. It was erected in 1566 on the orders of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and designed by the Ottoman architect Mimar Hayruddin.

During the Yugoslav civil wars Mostar suffered two distinct conflicts: after Bosnia-Herzogovina declared independence in April 1992 the (mostly Serb) Yugoslav Army went in to try and crush its independence. They were opposed by militias set up from both the Croat and Bosnian Muslim population (which both made up about a third of the city’s population). In June 1992 the Croat-Bosniak forces successfully attacked the besieging Yugoslav Army and forced them to withdraw. Lots of shelling and shooting resulted in the town’s historic buildings getting badly knocked about, but not the bridge.

The bridge was destroyed as part of the second conflict, for after jointly seeing off the Serbs, tension  then grew between the Croats and Bosniaks. In October Croats declared the independence of a small enclave which they called ‘the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia’, supported by neighbouring Croatia and this triggered the Croat–Bosniak War which lasted from 18 October 1992 to 23 February 1994.

The Old Bridge was destroyed by Croatian forces on November 9, 1993 during a stand-off between opposing forces on each side of the river. It’s said that more than 60 shells hit the bridge before it collapsed. The collapse of the bridge consolidated the complete ethnic compartmentalisation of the city into Croat west bank and Muslim east bank.

What’s amazing is the enmity that lingered on after the ‘end’ of this small war. The town actually had six bridges and some of the others survived but adult men were forbidden from crossing over to ‘the other’s side. Ignatieff tells the story of a Muslim lad who drove over one of the surviving bridges to visit a Croatian girl he’d known before the division. On the way back he was shot in the back of the head by the Croat checkpoint guards and his car slowed to a halt half way across the bridge as he died (p.33). To understand the Yugoslav catastrophe you have to get inside the minds of the soldiers who did that.

While UN peacekeepers eventually moved in to supervise the fragile peace, the European Union considered how to repair the devastated infrastructure all across the former Yugoslav states. Ignatieff meets the man charged with rebuilding the famous Mostar bridge, a French architect named Gille Pequeux. Ignatieff spends time with him, learning how the Frenchman is doggedly studying whatever architects plans still survive, analysing the ancient techniques the Ottomans used to cut the stone and carve runnels along the inward-facing sides which were then filled with molten lead to tie them together, in every way trying to make the reconstruction as authentic as possible.

Ignatieff drolly points out that the president of Turkey offered to fund the rebuilding the bridge as a symbol of Turkey’s long-term presence/contribution/imperial occupation of this part of Europe. The EU politely turned down the offer and insisted it was done by one of their own. So it is drily ironic that the much-lauded rebirth of this ‘symbol of multiculturalism’ entailed a diplomatic rebuff of an actual gesture of multiculturalism (p.36).

But rebuilding bridges and houses and hospitals and mosques is easy. Reconciling the people who live and work in them is much harder. Ignatieff is blunt. The EU and America have spent over $6 billion ‘reconstructing’ Bosnia but it is still ruled by the crooks who rose to power during the wars and a big part of the aid money, like aid money anywhere, is routinely creamed off by corrupt leaders and administrators.

Leaders of the rival communities never meet and rarely talk. They only get together for the photo opportunities required to make a show of unity for the press and EU officials to ensure the all-important foreign aid cash keeps flowing.

For our part, the West is disillusioned. Real reconciliation has not taken place. Corruption is endemic. Some of the refugees have returned to their homes but for many ethnic cleansing achieved its goals. Many of the locals still hate each other.

And so Ignatieff points out that rebuilding the bridge is as important for the morale of the interventionist West as for the locals. We need it to prop up our delusions that opposite sides in a civil war can be reconciled. That our costly interventions are worthwhile.

This lovely essay rises to a poetic peroration:

The Western need for noble victims and happy endings suggests that we are more interested in ourselves than we are in the places, like Bosnia, that we take up as causes. This may be the imperial kernel at the heart of the humanitarian enterprise. For what is empire but the desire to imprint our values, civilisation and achievements on the souls, bodies and institutions of another people? Imperialism is a narcissistic enterprise, and narcissism is doomed to disillusion. Whatever other people want to be, they do not want to be forced to be us. It is an imperial mistake to suppose that we can change their hearts and minds. It is their memory, their trauma, not ours, and our intervention is not therapy. We can help them to rebuild the bridge. Whether they actually use it to heal their city is up to them. (p.43)

Beautiful rhythm to it, isn’t there? Lovely cadences. The flow of the prose beautifully embodies the flow of the thought which is both clear and logical but also emotive and compelling. Ignatieff writes like this everywhere: he is lucid, logical, but also stylish and evocative. He’s the complete package.

Chapter 2. The Humanitarian as Imperialist

Opens in 2000 with Ignatieff attending a press photo shoot given by UN representative in Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, and a Spanish general, who have persuaded two local Kosovar politicians, one of them a former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army nicknamed ‘the snake’, to accompany him to the site of an atrocity. In the night someone laid a landmine. This morning a van driving between two Serb villages ran over it, it detonated, killing two outright and blowing the legs off the one survivor. The two Kosovar politicians say the required words, about the need to change hearts and minds. Koucher delivers his patter. The photographers snap, the new crews record, then it is over and everyone jumps into their cars and speeds off.

Ignatieff accompanies them to a Serbian monastery. Father Sava, the head of the monastery has been chosen as a ‘moderate’ leader of the minority Serbian community left in Kosovo when the war ended in 1999. Attacks on Serbs are continuing on a daily basis. Kouchner and the Spaniard assure Father Sava they are doing everything they can. It doesn’t much matter since the simmering Serb community doesn’t believe either Sava or the UN. Not when members of their families are blown up or shot every day.

The international community is having to rebuild Kosovo from the ground up, rebuilding its entire infrastructure, economy, everything, making it ‘the most ambitious project the UN has ever undertaken’ (p.51).

Once again Ignatieff repeats that the West ‘want’s noble victims and doesn’t know how to cope when the victims turn on their former oppressors.

Bernard Kouchner

All this is by way of introduction to a long profile of Bernard Kouchner. Being Ignatieff, he sees Kouchner not so much as a person but as a walking embodiment of the way the entire doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’ has changed and evolved over thirty years.

Ignatieff says Kouchner came of age during the heady revolutionary days of Paris 1968. In a change-the-world spirit he volunteered to go serve as a doctor with the Red Cross in Biafra. However, he drastically disagreed with the Red Cross ideology of neutrality, non-intervention and non-reporting, removed his Red Cross armband and was among the founder members of the French organisation Médecins Sans Frontières or Doctors Without Borders. These guys are more prepared to call out aggressors and killers. Ignatieff considers the pros and cons of the two positions, Red Cross’s studied neutrality, Médecins’ engagement.

Ignatieff claims Kouchner also pioneered the involvement of the media in humanitarian aid, realising people need to be shocked out of their complacency by images of horror and starving children on their TVs. He has been involved in various publicity stunts which drew down a world of mockery from liberal commentators but do, generally, publicise his causes.

It is Kouchner, more than anyone else, who created the modern European relation between civic compassion, humanitarian action and the media. (p.61)

Kouchner parted from Médecins when the latter won the Nobel Prize in 1999. This is because Kouchner had moved on from thinking aid organisations should speak out about evil, murder, massacre, human-engineered famine and so on, but had progressed to a more assertive position – that humanitarian organisations needed to get involved in political attempts to combat evil.

Aid organisations talk about ‘civil society’ and the ‘humanitarian space’ but Ignatieff says Kouchner thought this was an illusion. Aid agencies are supported and enabled by nation states. More than that, some crises aren’t humanitarian crises at all, they are crimes. Thus Saddam Hussein attacking his Kurdish population, trying to exterminate it and driving it up into the mountains to starve to death wasn’t a ‘humanitarian crisis’, it was a crime against humanity. Situations like this don’t call for the discreet, neutral aid providing of the Red Cross; they must be opposed by force.

This led him to become deeply involved in French and then UN politics. In 1988 he became Secrétaire d’état for Humanitarian Action in 1988 in the Michel Rocard cabinet, then Minister of Health during Mitterrand’s presidency. He served in the European Parliament 1994 to 1997, chairing the Committee on Development and Cooperation. He became French Minister of Health 1997 to 1999 Lionel Jospin’s government, and then served as Minister of Health for a third time, 2001 to 2002.

Ignatieff says Kouchner’s positions, then, aren’t interesting conversation pieces, but have influenced French government action. Thus his position influenced the French decision to back the UN resolution to send a peace-keeping force into Bosnia, part of which was meant to protect Sarajevo and Srebrenica. This failed miserably, with the Serbs bombing Sarajevo for years, and rounding up and exterminating 8,000 Muslim boys and men in Srebrenica under the noses of the 300-strong UN force.

The logic of this sequence of events is that only force can work against evil aggressors, and it was this thinking which finally led the Americans to intervene when they ordered air strikes against Serbian positions in defence of a Croat advance; and then the sustained bombing of Belgrade from March to June 1999 to persuade the government of Slobodan Milošević to stop the massacring of Albanian Kosovars.

So the appointment of Kouchner as UN Representative to Kosovo in 1999 was full of historical ironies and meanings. This was the man who had led humanitarian intervention away from the studied neutrality of the 1960s, through active calling-out towards ever-growing aggressive intervention against the bad guys. So it is the evolution of Kouchner’s theoretical positions which interests Ignatieff.

In this chapter he reiterates what are, by now, becoming familiar points. One is that the intervention is ‘imperial’ in a number of ways. First and foremost, imperialism means powerful states compelling populations in weaker ones to behave how the powerful ones want them to. But all this talk about reconciliation is far from disinterested altruism: the European nations want to sort out the Balkan issue and impose peace and reconciliation so as to remove a source of political instability which could (in an admittedly remote scenario) draw in either Russia or Turkey. More immediately, to cut off the influx of the Balkans’ most successful exports, which he drily lists as organised crime, drugs and sex slaves (p.60).

Second, as in his essay about Bosnia and Afghanistan and in The Warrior’s Honour, is that Ignatieff is very, very sceptical about the chances of anything like genuine reconciliation. The same ethnic groups are now at daggers’ drawn and will do everything they can to harm or kill members of the opposing groups. He claims that Kouchner was taken aback by the ferocity of the tribal hatred he encountered when he first arrived (p.63), and depicts Kouchner, when he’s not performing for the cameras, as an exhausted and disillusioned man.

As in the essay on Mostar, he asks why the victims should be obliged to conform to the Western stereotype of the noble-minded victim? In reality, the second they had the chance, the ‘victims’ have turned the tables and are carrying out a campaign of revenge killings and terrorist atrocities against the Serbs still stuck in north Kosovo who haven’t been able to flee to the safety of Serbia.

Ignatieff sees Kouchner as an imperial viceroy who has been parachuted in to try and rebuild the country and prepare it for ‘autonomy’. He calls it a ‘protectorate’ with a pretence of local autonomy but where rule actually stops with the imperial viceroy, as in the Raj, as in the British and French mandates in the Middle East between the wars. If that was ‘imperialism’, surely this is, too.

Once again, Ignatieff makes the point that maybe what Kosovo needs is not a moderately independent-minded Kouchner, but an utterly independent-minded General MacArthur, who was given a free hand to rule Japan as he saw fit for six years. Maybe what the Balkans need is not less imperialism, but a more naked, out and out, assertive imperialism. Do this, or else.

(In the event Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on 17 February 2008. As of 4 September 2020, 112 UN states recognised its independence, with the notable exceptions of Russia and China.)

Chapter 3. Nation-building Lite

Max Weber said a state is an institution which exerts a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence over a given territory. Generally, this monopoly is channeled via the institutions of a professional police service and an army. In a Western nation the police are subject to an elected politician and their work feeds into an independent judiciary, while the army is trained and led by professionals.

In a failed state, weapons are everywhere and the use of violence is widely dispersed. Usually, after a period of anarchy, warlords emerge who control the application of violence, at least in their territories, but often only up to a point, and sometimes cannot control permanent low-level street violence.

The essence of nation-building is to get weapons out of circulation – out of the hands of warlords, paramilitaries, criminal gangs and punks on the street – and restore that monopoly of violence which is one definition of a functioning state; and in so doing to create a space in which non-violent politics, negotiation, discussion and compromise, can be encouraged. It may still be a violent and corrupt state but it is, at least, a starting point.

Ignatieff points out in The Warrior’s Honour that, in quite a few failed states round the world, this is now harder to do than ever before, because modern weapons are so cheap and easily available. Some societies have become soaked in guns and it’s hard to see a way back to unarmed civility.

Ignatieff gives specifics about the history of Afghanistan, the Soviet invasion, the West’s backing of the mujahideen who, once the Soviets left and the West walked away, degenerated into a civil war of regional warlords. But his interest, as always, is in the principles and theory behind it.

He repeats one of his central ideas which is that nation-building takes a long, long time, and gives a striking example. America’s own nation-building, starting with the Reconstruction after the civil war, arguably took an entire century, up until the civil rights legislation of 1964 finally abolished discrimination against Afro-Americans (p.85).

Reconstruction in Germany and Japan took about a decade, but in both the nation-builders were starting in states with well-defined borders, established (albeit corrupted) institutions, and ethnic homogeneity. The populations of both countries wanted to be reconstructed.

He makes the point that one of the secrets of success for an empire is the illusion of permanence, of longevity. As soon as you announce you’re leaving, all the vested interests rise up and jockey for power. This is vividly demonstrated by the absolute chaos into which Congo plunged at independence, as provinces seceded and new parties jockeyed for power using extra-political means i.e. guns and coups.

Ignatieff says the Americans have a poor track record on this issue, and a reputation for walking away from chaotic states when it suits them. This means local warlords realise they just have to mind their manners and bide their time. What Ignatieff didn’t know in 2002 is that the Americans would stay for an epic 20 years but, the same rule of permanence applies: as soon as Joe Biden announced they were leaving, people all across the country realised the Taliban would swarm back into power and began making arrangements accordingly, i.e. Afghan police, army and local governors defecting to them within days, so that the entire Afghan security apparatus melted away and the Taliban were in Kabul within a week.

Not so easy, running an empire, is it? Maybe the thousands of American academics who loftily criticise Britain’s chaotic withdrawal from Palestine or India will reflect on the cracking job their boys did in Afghanistan.

Ignatieff makes another snappy point: how can American Republican administrations, who are fanatically opposed to Big Government, find themselves spending tens of billions of dollars creating huge administrations in foreign countries? Easy. They get the Europeans to do it. The Americans are good at fighting (Ignatieff says that, in a sense, America is the last warlike nation in the West) so they handle the bombs and drones and special forces. The Europeans then move in with the peacekeeping police forces and the droves of humanitarian aid agencies, building schools, hospitals etc. Yin and yang.

Chapter 4. Conclusion: Empire and its Nemesis

He describes modern Western nation-building as ‘imperial’ because:

  • its essential purpose is to create stability in border zones essential to the security of the great powers
  • the entire project rests on the superior armed might of the West
  •  no matter how much ‘autonomy’ is given to local rulers, real power rests in Washington

In addition, he points out how all empires have to ration their interventions. It is a sage point, which sheds light on the British Empire. You have limited resources: which of the world’s endless trouble spots can you afford to address? Ignatieff points out the basic hypocrisy of ‘humanitarian intervention’ which is that it is only carried out in places which are convenient or important to the West. The West is never going to intervene in Chechnya or Crimea or Xinjiang because they are the preserves of other empires.

The new imperialism is not only lite it is impatient. The British gave themselves generations to prepare the populations of India for independence. The UN gives places like Kosovo or Afghanistan 3 years before they have to hold their first elections. Hurry up! This is costing us money!

No imperialists have ever been so impatient for quicker results. (p.115)

Why? The short attention span of the modern media, always hurrying on to the next story. (It took, by my calculation, about ten days from the American departure from Afghanistan being the biggest story in the whole world to being completely ignored and forgotten about.) And the election cycle in democracies. Whatever plans you put in place now, at the next election in a few years’ time the leader of the opposition party will be promising to bring our boys home and save everyone a shedload of money.

This conclusion takes its title from a reflection on the enduring force of nationalism. In the end the European empires were defeated by the indomitable force of the colonies’ nationalist movements. This was the lesson the Americans should have learned from Vietnam. It wasn’t their weapons which won the Viet Cong victory, it was their nationalist vehemence. Nationalism always trumps empire.

Nationalism will always prove to be the nemesis of any imperial nation-building project. (p.117)

Ignatieff didn’t know this when he wrote these lines, but they apply to the American invasion of Iraq. They overthrew a dictator and promised to bring peace and plenty, so were utterly unprepared for the violence of the forces that attacked them from all sides.

Thoughts

1. So Ignatieff’s message is that if liberal humanitarians really want to intervene to do good, they should really intervene: go in hard, defeat the bad guys, disarm them, force parties to the negotiating table, and run things themselves, setting up strong national institutions and teaching squabbling factions what democracy looks like in practice. And they have to do this for years, decades maybe, until the institutions and mindsets of civic society have been thoroughly inculcated. And only then leave. In other words, imperialism. Not the kind of imperialism which exploits the native populations and rips off their raw materials. An altruistic imperialism, a humanitarian imperialism. But imperialism all the same.

2. When Ignatieff devotes a chapter of The Warrior’s Honour to the growing sense of weariness and disillusion with humanitarian intervention, I suspected he was talking about himself. This book shows a further deterioration in his attitude; I mean, he has become markedly more cynical

Across the board hopes have been crushed, ideals have been compromised, ambitions have been stymied. Much of this may reflect the appalling history of the 1990s, but I also think some of it may be a projection of Ignatieff’s own growing disillusion.

You feel this downward trajectory when he says that Bernard Kouchner arrived in Kosovo in July ‘talking about European values, tolerance and multiculturalism’ but by Christmas this had been revised down to hopes for ‘coexistence’ (p.63). Kouchner simply hadn’t anticipated the hatred and the intransigence which he found in Kosovo. So many aid workers and proponents of humanitarian intervention don’t. In Blood and Belonging Ignatieff refers fairly respectfully to ‘the international community’. Eight years later he refers to it as:

what is laughingly referred to as the ‘international community’. (p.97)

He is particularly disillusioned with the international aid industry, which he sees as almost a scam, a locust swarm of very well-paid white Western graduates, who fly in, can’t speak the language, pay over the odds for everything thus pricing the locals out of accommodation and food, stay hunkered down in their armoured enclaves, drive everywhere in arrogant white 4 by 4s, and cook up huge projects without consulting any of the locals. All the Afghans he talks to complain to Ignatieff about the NGOs’ arrogance and condescension. It is the colonialist attitude with email and shades. In this book he has taken to referring to the aid organisation community dismissively as the ‘internationals’.

In this book Ignatieff is as clever and incisive and thought-provoking as ever. But sometimes he sounds really tired.


Credit

Empire Lite: Nation-Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan by Michael Ignatieff was published by Vintage in 2003. All references are to the 2003 Vintage paperback edition.

New world disorder reviews

Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism by Michael Ignatieff (1993) – 2

As I’ve discovered in Croatia and Serbia, the four-wheel drive is the vehicle of preference for the war zones of the post-Cold War world. It has become the chariot of choice for the warlords who rule the checkpoints and the command posts of the factions, gangs, guerrilla armies, tribes that are fighting over the bones of the nation in the 1990s. (p.139)

In 1993 Michael Ignatieff was commissioned by the BBC to make a TV series in which he investigated what was already being heralded as the rise of a new kind of virulent nationalism following the end of Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union. With this aim he and his TV crew travelled to Croatia and Serbia, to recently reunified Germany, to Ukraine, Quebec, Kurdistan, and Northern Ireland. Each location produced an episode of the TV series and a chapter of this book.

Ignatieff introduces autobiographical elements into his text. We learn that he has personal links with Ukraine (where his Russian great-grandfather bought a farm), Quebec (his grandparents emigrated to Canada where he spent his boyhood), Yugoslavia (where his father was posted as a diplomat and Ignatieff appears to have spent 2 years as a teenager), Germany (where he has also lived) and Northern Ireland, because he had lived and worked in London through the later 1980s and 1990s, and Ulster was (and is) the UK’s biggest nationalist problem.

But the autobiographical elements are always dignified and restrained (for example, the moving and evocative descriptions of his great-grandfather’s long-ruined house in the Ukraine). More importantly, they always serve a purpose. They are chosen to bring out the broader political, sociological or historical points which he wants to make.

1. Croatia and Serbia

The key point about the wars in the former Yugoslavia is that, despite lingering memories of the brutal civil war between Croats and Serbs 1941 to 1945 within the larger Second World War, the wars which broke out across the former Yugoslavia were not inevitable. They were the result of the calculated efforts of communist leaders to cling onto power as the Soviet Union collapsed, especially Slobodan Milošević of Serbia; and of the over-hasty and thoughtless steps to independence of Croatia under its leader Franjo Tuđman which alienated the large (600,000) Serb minority within Croatia’s borders.

Another way of looking at it is that neither Serbia nor Croatia, nor Slovenia nor Bosnia, had time to develop anything like western levels of civic society before the slide to war began, at which point the crudest ethnic nationalism became the quickest way to maintain power, for someone like Milošević, and opened the way for opportunistic warlords such as Arkan (real name Željko Ražnatović, ‘the most powerful organized crime figure in the Balkans’ to take over entire regions).

Ignatieff reiterates the themes summarised in the introduction:

  • a slide towards anarchy inculcates fear; ethnic nationalism addresses that fear by providing safety and security among ‘your’ people
  • into the vacuum left by the collapse of civil society step warlords, whose rule revives the political arrangements of the late Middle Ages

He points out, in more than one chapter, the intense psychological and erotic pleasure of being a young men in a gang of young men wielding guns or machetes and lording it over everyone you meet, forcing everyone out of their houses, looting and raping at will, bullying people at checkpoints, making them lie on the ground while you swank around above them. Photos of Arkan and his tigers indicate what a band of brothers they were and how this kind of behaviour fulfils a deep male need. (Until you’re killed in a firefight or assassinated, that is; but who wants to live forever?)

Large parts of former Yugoslavia are now ruled by figures that have not been seen in Europe since late medieval times: the warlord. They appear wherever states disintegrate: in the Lebanon, Somalia, northern India, Armenia, Georgia, Ossetia, Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia. With their carphones, faxes and exquisite personal weaponry, they look post-modern, but the reality is pure early-medieval. (p.28)

(Which is why Beowulf is, in many ways, a much more reliable guide to life in many parts of the contemporary world than any number of modern novels.)

The warlord is not only the figure who naturally emerges when civic society collapses; the ethnic cleansing which was given its name in Yugoslavia is his natural strategy.

The logic of ethnic cleansing is not just motivated by nationalist hatred. Cleansing is the warlord’s coldly rational solution to the war of all against all. Rid yourself of your neighbours, the warlord says, and you no longer have to fear them. Live among your own, and you can live in peace. With me and the boys to protect you. (p.30)

Ignatieff gives a great deal of historical background, especially the long shadow cast by the Yugoslav civil war of 1941 to 1945. In this context he explains Tito’s great failing. Tito went out of his way to defuse ethnic tension in the region by carefully redistributing power between the national groups and seeding Serb communities in Croatia and Croatian communities in Serbia and so on. But he made two signal mistakes:

  1. He tried to bury and suppress the genocidal past, as symbolised by the way he had the notorious concentration camp at Jasenovach (where as many as 250,000 people, mostly Serbs, were taken to be murdered in the most brutal ways imaginable) bulldozed to the ground instead of acknowledging the atrocity and undertaking a truth and reconciliation process.
  2. Although Tito’s Yugoslavia gained the reputation of being more independent from Soviet control and therefore more liberal, Tito completely failed to develop any form of civic democracy. When the collapse came none of the constituent nations had any track record of real democratic debate, of addressing disputes through discussion. Instead the respective leaders (in Serbia and Croatia in particular) seized power for themselves with arrogant indifference to the large minorities within their borders (most notably the 600,000 Serbs who lived inside Croatia) which triggered a wave of paranoia, and then it only took a few sparks to ignite localised fighting, and then the leaders declared ‘It’s war!’

To summarise the road to war:

  • until recently the difference between Serbs and Croats were glossed over or ignored by people who lived together, intermarried, worked and played football together
  • they made up a community of interest where people concern themselves with jobs and pay and housing and schools
  • the collapse of Yugoslavia into its constituent states was a long time coming (Tito, who held the place together, died in 1980);
  • in the decade after Tito’s death the peoples off Yugoslavia underwent a sustained period of austerity imposed on them by the IMF and Western bankers as the price of repaying the massive debts Tito had run up in the 1970s
  • at the same time it became evermore obvious that the communist rulers were corrupt and creamed foreign money off to live a luxurious life; the combination of poverty and corrupt leadership led to widespread resentment
  • the trigger was the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the realisation by the communist rulers that their rule was destined to end soon
  • therefore they turned to ‘national identity’ to create a new ideology to underpin their rule
  • civic nationalism treats every citizen as equal, regardless of race, creed, colour, gender and so on, and citizens are united by a shared commitment to the rule of law and established institutions
  • however, the traditions and institutions of democracy and the civic virtues of tolerance and inclusivity take time to create and inculcate via education
  • for demagogues in a hurry it is much much easier to whip your population up using ethnic nationalism i.e. to tell people a) they are part of a distinct ethnic group b) that this group has historically been victimised and exploited but now c) it’s time to rise up, to stop being helpless victims, to stand up to the exploiter, to seize what is rightfully ours etc
  • ethnic nationalism provides all kinds of advantages to both the ruler and the ruled: for the ruler it is a quick way to whip up fervent support for a National Idea and cover up your own corruption; for the ruled the excitable fervour of nationalist belief makes you feel authentic, like you finally belong; it creates a community of equals, your tribe, gives opportunities to rise in the ranks and lord it over friends and neighbours who thought you were a loser: all the while this ideology explains that everything bad that’s ever happened in your life and to your country by blaming it on them, the others, the outsiders, who must be purged, expelled or plain liquidated from the territory you now consider your Holy Soil

Update

Ignatieff visited in 1993 and travelled through zones where different militias held neighbouring villages and had dynamited all the homes belonging to their ethnic adversaries. Reading his account you get the sense that some kind of uneasy peace had settled. But this was way wrong. The wars in Yugoslavia were to continue right up till 2001, centred on the cruelty and then Serb massacres of the Bosnian war, and then, when the Serbs refused to cease killing Kosovans, the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Belgrade.

  1. The Ten-Day War (1991)
  2. Croatian War of Independence (1991 to 1995)
  3. Bosnian War (1992 to 1995)
  4. Kosovo War (1998 to 1999)
  5. Insurgency in the Preševo Valley (1999 to 2001)
  6. Insurgency in the Republic of Macedonia (2001)

2. Germany

Ignatieff’s prose is a little more purple and metaphorical in the chapter on Germany. This is because the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was the epicentre of the crisis which swept the Soviet regime and its east European colonies. So he uses descriptive prose to try and capture what East Germany felt like during the long years of drab, repressed communist rule, and then what it felt like in the ecstatic months of protest leading up to the demolition of the wall.

Now, four years later, all the euphoria has gone. The East Germans he speaks to are a shabby, disillusioned bunch, very conscious of the way the West Germans quickly took to looking down on them, accusing them of being workshy malingerers.

What happened was a massive experiment in political theory. Divide a nation in half. Keep them utterly separate, physically and psychologically isolated, for 45 years. Then suddenly remove all barriers and let them reunite. Then ask: to what extent does the people (an unchanging social and cultural group) make the state? Or how much does the state shape and mould the people? I.e. in those 45 years, how much had the wildly divergent West and East German governments managed to mould their populations?

Short answer: states mould the people. During the Cold War West Germans were quietly proud that East Germany was the most economically successful of Russia’s colonies. But when the wall came down and Western industrialists visit the East’s fabled factories they discovered they were a shambles, incompetent managers overseeing workshy workers. They would have to start again from scratch, inculcating Germany virtues: timekeeping, conscientiousness, hard work.

In reality, it was less a reunification than the West colonising the East. Ignatieff meets Helmut Börner, the tired manager of a museum in Leipzig, so conceived and run to flatter the East German authorities and their Russian sponsors and they both reflect on how quickly the new Germany will erase memories of the shameful East. Ignatieff visits a sweaty underground club full of pounding music which has the exotic twist that it used to be the torture rooms of the East German security police. He looks around. It’s only a few years after reunification but the kids don’t care. They’re dancing and getting off with each other. Life is for living.

Ignatieff interviews a neo-Nazi called Leo who cheerfully denies the Holocaust and yearns to reconquer Silesia, now part of Poland, where his family came from. Ignatieff thinks the resurgence of neo-Nazism is dangerous but not really worrying, when it amounts to gangs of skinheads fighting immigrants.

More worrying is the growth of right-wing anti-immigrant parties, exemplified by the retired prison officer and local politician, Herr K, standing for election for the Republikaner Party. He wants rights for immigrants restricted more than they already were in 1990s Germany (where a Turk could be born, educated, work, pay taxes, and yet never achieve formal German citizenship).

Because there’s no actual war in reunified Germany, this long chapter is the most varied and subtle. It is a beautifully observed essay on the contradictions and quirks of the German nation and its ideas of itself, something we Brits rarely hear about.

Update

That was a long time ago. Inequality between East and West Germany has proved an intractable problem, admittedly partly because the East is more rural than the dynamic, industrialised West. And the refugee crisis he discusses turned out to be just the harbinger of a central issue of the 21st century, which is what to do about the increasing numbers of refugees and migrants wanting to escape Africa and the Middle East and start new lives in affluent Europe. Which came to a head in the refugee crisis of 2015.

And the right-wing Republikan Party candidate Ignatieff interviews has been superseded by the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland, founded in 2013 and which now holds 83 seats in the Bundestag. Germany’s struggle with its past, with its national identity, and its multicultural present, is a microcosm of the problems which face all Western nations.

3. Ukraine

Ignatieff’s great-grandfather was Russian and bought an estate in the Ukraine in the 1860s when he was ambassador to Constantinople (over 1,000 miles away). Ignatieff flies in to Kiev and takes a bus then taxi out to the old estate, stays the night, interviews the priest in the village church and the manager of the collective farm.

What keeps coming over is his sense of the Soviet Empire, as he calls it, the largest empire of the twentieth century, as a magnificent and catastrophic failure. In the Ukraine Soviet failure and tyranny had disastrous effects.

Something like 3 million Ukrainians died of hunger between 1931 and 1932. A further million were killed during the collectivisation of agriculture and the purges of intellectuals and party officials later in the decade. An additional 2 to 3 million Ukrainians were deported to Siberia. The peasant culture of small farmers and labourers that my grandfather grew up among was exterminated. This was when the great fear came. And it never left… (p.91)

Like the communist officials in charge in Yugoslavia, the leaders of communist Ukraine realised they could transition to independence and still remain in power, so they deftly adopted nationalist clothes, language and slogans, despite the fact that only a few years previously they had been locking up nationalists as subversives. Ignatieff meets the Ukrainian president, Leonid Kravchuk, a smooth operator

He speaks to a Ukrainian journalist working for the Financial Times and a former nationalist, locked up in prison. Their fear is what happened to Russia will happen to Ukraine i.e. a relentless slide into economic collapse and anarchy.

He attends a service of the Ukrainian Uniate Church in St George’s Cathedral, Lvov, and has an insight. The nationalists dream that their entire country will be like this congregation:

Standing among men and women who do not hide the intensity of their feelings, it becomes clear what nationalism really is: the dream that a whole nation could be like a congregation; singing the same hymns, listening to the same gospel, sharing the same emotions, linked not only to each other, but to the dead buried beneath their feet. (p.95)

In other words nationalism can be a beautiful dream, a vision of unity and belonging, typically, as here, through religion, language and song.

Also, this passage mentions the importance of the dead and where the dead are buried. The land where the dead are buried. For the first time Ignatieff feels a stirring of that feeling for the land where his great grandfather and mother are buried, which he is the first member of his family to revisit since the revolution of 1917.

When he meets the Tartars returning to Crimea from their long exile in central Asia, they are even more obsessed about the land, about the soil, about the sacred earth of their ancestors (pages 99 to 103). Ignatieff begins to understand how our individual lives are trite and superficial, but acquire depth and meaning in light of these ancestral attachments.

Land is sacred because it where your ancestors lie. Ancestors must be remembered because human life is a small and trivial thing without the anchoring of the past. Land is worth dying for, because strangers will profane the graves… (p.93)

Update

In 2013, when the government of President Viktor Yanukovych decided to suspend the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement and seek closer economic ties with Russia, it triggered several months of demonstrations and protests known as the Euromaidan.

The following year this escalated into the 2014 Ukrainian revolution that led to the overthrow of Yanukovych and the establishment of a new, more Europe-facing government. However, the overthrow of Russia-friendly Yanukovych led to the annexation of Crimea by Russia in March 2014 and the War in Donbas in April 2014.

4. Quebec

Ignatieff is Canadian, he grew up in Ottowa where his Russian grandparents had emigrated. As a boy he knew about the Frenchies up the road but he never actually met any. Now, as an adult, he realises he has never actually visited the French part of his own nation, Quebec. He thought he knew Canada, but realises now it was only a Canada of his imagining. Which leads him to realise that all nations are, in a sense, imaginary.

You can never know the strangers who make up a nation with you. So you imagine what it is that you have in common and in this shared imagining, strangers become citizens, that is, people who share both the same rights and the same image of the place they live in. A nation, therefore, is an imagined community.

But now he realises that during his young manhood he completely failed to imagine what it felt like for the other community in Canada. He recaps his definitions of nationalism, in order to go on and define federalism, for this chapter will turn out to be an investigation of the strengths and weaknesses of federalism. First nationalism:

Nationalism is a doctrine which hold (1) that the world’s people are divided into nations (2) that these nations should have the right to self-determination, and (3) that full self-determination requires statehood. (p.110)

Federalism is the antithesis of this idea of nationalism, for it holds that different peoples do not need a state to enjoy self-determination. Under federalism two different groups agree to share power while retaining self government over matters relating to their identity. Federalism:

seeks to reconcile two competing principles: the ethnic principle according to which people wish to be ruled by their own; with the civic principle, according to which strangers wish to come together to form a community of equals, based not on ethnicity but on citizenship. (p.110)

But federalism is not doing so well. He lists the world’s most notable federal states – Canada, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Belgium, India, the former USSR – and then points out that all of them are in deep trouble. The Czechs and Slovaks couldn’t live together; Yugoslavia collapsed in a welter of wars; India struggles with regional separatism. The very concept of federalism is in trouble around the world and so his long chapter on Canada treats it as a kind of test bed or laboratory to assess federalism’s long-term prospects for survival.

He gives a lot of detail about Canadian history, and the dawn of modern Quebecois nationalism in 1960, none of which I knew about. But out of this arises yet another definition or aspect of nationalism:

Nationalism has often been a revolt against modernity, a defence of the backwardness of economically beleaguered regions and classes from the flames of individualism, capitalism, Judaism and so on. (p.116)

Yes, this makes sense of the aggressive over-compensation of so many nationalists, who all speak a variation on the comic stereotype of the English provincial: ‘You come down here with your fancy London ways, with your multicultural this and your cosmopolitan that. Well, people round these parts live a more simple life, see, a more honest and authentic life than you la-di-dah city types.’ They flaunt their backwardness.

But this leads Ignatieff into a paradoxical development which he spends some time analysing. In the Canada of his boyhood the Quebec French really were discriminated against, weren’t served in shops unless they spoke English, were perceived as small-town bumpkins with a lower standard of education, dominated by an authoritarian Catholicism and with extravagantly large families (ten children!).

So, Ignatieff says, surely as these very real obstacles have been overcome, as Quebecois have become more urban, progressive, women’s liberation has led to much smaller families, they’re all less in thrall to the church, surely they would abandon their nationalism and become modern urban cosmopolitans like him? But no. Contrary to everything Ignatieff would have expected, Quebec nationalism has grown. The paradox is exemplified by a French Canadian Ignatieff interviews who is president of a very successful bank.

I had assumed that global players cease to care about nationalism. I was wrong. (p.115)

Historical grievances are never forgotten. The British won the Battle of Quebec in 1759 and Quebec nationalists are still unhappy about it. He talks to modern journalists and a group of students. All of them are proudly nationalistic and want their own Quebec. There’s a division between those who want an actual independent state with its own flag and seat at the UN, and those who just want almost complete autonomy. But they all see Quebec as not a part of Canada or a province of Canada but a separate nation and a separate people.

But the problem with nationalism is it’s infectious. If Quebecuois want a state of their own so they can be a majority in their own state and not a despised minority in English-speaking Canada, what about two other constituencies?

1. Ignatieff goes to spend time with a native American, a Cree Indian. There are about 11,000 of them and they reject all the languages and traditions and legal concepts of the white people from down south, whatever language they speak. The Cree think of themselves as a people and they want their own protection.

2. Then Ignatieff goes to spend time with some of the English-speaking farmers who live in Quebec, have done for hundred and fifty years. No-one tells their story, the history books ignore them, Quebec nationalists have written them out of their narrative.

Nationalism spreads like the plague, making every group which can define itself in terms of language, tradition, religion and so on angry because it doesn’t have a nation of its own. You could call it the Yugoslav Logic. Smaller and smaller nations become shriller and shriller in their calls for ethnic purity.

And, of course, increasingly anxious about all the outsiders, non-members of the language group, or religion or whatever, who remain inside its borders. Read about the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian  and Ottoman empires to see what happens next. Insofar as the Sudeten Germans found themselves in the alien state of Czechoslovakia, the Second World War was caused by the collapse of the Austrian empire into impractical ethnic nation states.

Ignatieff doesn’t state this explicitly but I see this nationalism as a malevolent virus which, wherever it goes, creates antagonism at best, sporadic violence, if you’re not too unlucky or, given enough economic collapse or social stress, war.

Ignatieff visits Dennis Rousseau, a working class guy who works in a local paper mill and plays ice hockey in Trois Rivieres which is, apparently, the working class neighbourhood of Quebec. In a long conversation Rousseau won’t budge from his position that he wants Quebec to be independent because Ontario (capital of English-speaking Canada) isn’t doing enough for the struggling papermill industry, for his town and his peers. No amount of evidence to the contrary can shift his simple conviction and Ignatieff wonders whether nationalist sentiment like Rousseau’s is, among other things, a way of avoiding the truth about the changing economic situation.

All round the developed world businesses are being exported and once prosperous communities are getting poor. This is a function of the super-charged neo-liberal global capitalism which has triumphed since the collapse of communism, all those manufacturing jobs going to China and India.

Apart from all its other appeals (the very deep psychological appeal of belonging, of having a home, having people around you who understand your language, your religion, your music, your jokes) this kind of nationalism provides simple answers to intractably complicated economic realities. Twenty years after this book was published Donald Trump would reach out to the tens of millions who live in those kind of communities where life used to be great and now it isn’t with his brand of whooping Yankee nationalism.

Update

Kurdistan

There are perhaps 40 million Kurds. The territory Kurdish mostly inhabited by Kurds and which Kurdish nationalists would like to be an independent Kurdish state straddles four of the fiercest nations on earth: Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Following the defeat of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War, the Kurds in Iraq rose up against his rule in the Kurdish intifada of March 1991. Hussein unleashed the full might of his army against them, driving hundreds of thousands of men, women and children up into the northern mountains until the Western allies intervened and set up a no-fly zone, preventing Saddam massacring any more of them.

It is this enclave which Ignatieff visits in 1993. With his typically intellectual perspective, he points out that it is something new: the first ever attempt by the UN to protect a people from the genocidal attacks of their national ruler. The enclave was far from being a state, but the Kurds had done as much as they could to make it like one, raising their own flag, holding elections. As in Ukraine among the Crimean Tartars, he realises how much the land, the actual soil, means in the mythology of nationalism:

At its most elemental, nationalism is perhaps the desire to have political dominion over a piece of land that one loves. Before anything, there must be a fierce attachment to the land itself and a sense that there is nothing else like this, nothing so beautiful, anywhere else in the world. (p.149)

Ignatieff travels and meets: representatives of the democratic party, the KDP, which has been run by the Barzani family for generations; then up into the mountains to see the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, one of the last doctrinaire Marxist guerrilla groups in the world.

He is taken on a tour of Halabja, the town Saddam ordered his jets to fly over and bomb with a cocktail of chemical gasses, resulting in at least 5,000 dead. It is, of course, a horrific sight but, as always, with Ignatieff, he not only notes and records touching, moving, terrifying details: he also extracts interesting and useful points about nationalism and death. First is the way nationalist ideology gives a meaning to life and death, especially the latter:

Nationalism seeks to hallow death, to redeem individual loss and link it to destiny and fate. A lonely frightened boy with a gun who dies at a crossroads in a fire-fight ceases to be just a lonely frightened boy. In the redeeming language of nationalism, he joins the imagined community of all the martyrs. (p.148)

Thus the roads of Kurdistan are marked by portraits of killed peshmerga fighters staring down from the plinths which once carried portraits of Saddam. He goes on to make a point about genocide. He doesn’t phrase it like this, but you can think of genocide as the dark side of nationalism, the demonic brother. If a nation is defined entirely by ‘the people’, defined as one ethnic group, who occupy it, then anyone outside that ethnic group should not be there, has no right to the land, is a pollutant, a potential threat.

Before the experience of genocide, a people may not believe they belong to a nation. Before genocide, they may believe it is a matter of personal choice whether they belong or believe. After genocide it becomes their fate. Genocide and nationalism have an entwined history. It was genocide that convinced the Jews and even convinced the gentile world that they were a people who would never be safe until they had a nation state of their own. (p.151)

The Turks have been waging war against their Kurds since the foundation of modern Turkey in 1923. Its leader Kemal Ataturk envisioned Turkey as a modern, secular nation with a civic nationalism. Logically, therefore, there was no room for tribes and ethnic nationalism which destabilised his vision of a secular state. Hence the aggressive attempts to ban the Kurdish language in schools, erase their traditions and songs, even the word Kurd is banned; officials refer to the ‘mountain Turks’. To quote Wikipedia:

Both the PKK and the Turkish state have been accused of engaging in terror tactics and targeting civilians. The PKK has historically bombed city centres, while Turkey has depopulated and burned down thousands of Kurdish villages and massacred Kurds in an attempt to root out PKK militants.

For the only place in the book Ignatieff loses his cool when he is assigned a 24-year-old Turkish special forces agent who carefully chaperones him around the ‘pacified’ region of south-east Turkey, where the local Kurds obviously go in fear of their lives, and the agent carefully monitors everyone Ignatieff speaks to, while another spook photographs them all. The agent’s name happens to be Feret and this leads Ignatieff into the borderline insulting use of the word ‘ferret’ to refer to all such spooks and spies and security force agents and repressers and torturers (pages 158 to 161).

You can’t compromise when the very unity of the state is at stake. There is no price that is not worth paying. Pull the balaclava over your face; put some bullets in the chamber; go out and break some Kurdish doors down in the night. Pull them out of bed. Put a bullet through their brains. Dirty wars are a paradise for ferrets. (p.161)

Update

A lot has happened to the Kurds in the 28 years since Ignatieff visited them. The primary fact was the Allied invasion of Iraq in 2003 which led to the break-up of Iraq during which Iraqi Kurds were able to cement control over the territory in the north of the country which they claim. A Kurd, Jalal Talabani, was even elected president of post-Saddam Iraq (2005 to 2014). Kurdish fighters were also involved in the Syrian civil war (2011 to the present) and involved in the complex fighting around the rise of Islamic State. And low-level conflict between the Turkish-facing PKK and Turkish security forces continues to this day.

Northern Ireland

Like most English people I couldn’t give a monkey’s about Northern Ireland. I was a boy when the Troubles kicked off around 1970 and Irish people shooting each other and blowing each other up was the wallpaper of my teenage years and young manhood, along with glam rock and the oil crisis.

Decades ago I was hit by flying glass from a car showroom when the IRA blew up an army barracks on the City Road in London. Like the Islamist terrorists who drove a van into tourists on London Bridge then went on the rampage through Borough Market ( 3 June 2017) it was just one of those mad features of modern life which you cross your fingers and hope to avoid.

For the first time I get a bit bored of Ignatieff when he says he went to Ulster to discover more about ‘Britishness’. I’ve read hundreds of commentators who’ve done the same thing over the last 50 years and their clever analyses are all as boring and irrelevant as each other. Most English people wish Northern Ireland would just join the Republic and be done with it. The situation in Ulster doesn’t tell you anything about ‘Britain’, it just tells you about the situation in Ulster.

Ignatieff still makes many good points, though. He adds yet another category of nationalist conflict to his list: which is one caused – as in Ukraine, as in Croatia (as in Rwanda) – where there is a history of oppression of one community by another. The proximate cause of the Rwandan genocide was the conscious, deliberate, well worked-out plan for extermination devised by the ideologues of Hutu Power. But the deeper cause was the long period of time when the majority Hutus had been treated like peasants by the aristocratic Tutsis. Visitors to the country couldn’t tell the two groups apart, they lived in the same communities, spoke the same language, used the same currency. But deep in many Hutu breasts burned anger at generations of injustice and oppression. Breeding ground for virulent vengeful ethnic nationalism.

Same in Ulster where Roman Catholics were treated as second class citizens since partition in 1922, and were actively barred from various civil positions and comparable to the WASP prejudice against the Catholic French in Quebec, or to the much more vicious colour bar in the Deep South of America.

It is the memory of domination in time past, or fear of domination in time future, not difference itself, which has turned conflict into an unbreakable downward spiral of political violence. (p.164)

But much of Ignatieff’s discussion deals in clichés and stereotypes about Britain and its imperial decline which have been discussed to death during the extended nightmare of the Brexit debates.

He spends most of the chapter in the company of working class youths in a Protestant slum street in the build-up to the big bonfire night which inaugurates the July marching season. He notes how fanatical they are about the symbols of Britishness, pictures of the Queen, the Union Jack plastered over everything.

Which is when he springs another of his Big Ideas: Ulster Protestantism is like the cargo cults anthropologists have identified in the South Seas. The great white god arrives by ship, fights a battle, saves the local tribe and their religion from neighbours and rivals, then departs never to return. But generations of tribespeople wear out their lives waiting, waiting for that return, and turning the bric-a-brac the white man left at random into relics and cult objects to be worshipped at home-made shrines on special holy days (pages 182 to 184).

Same, Ignatieff claims, with Ulster Protestantism. It has become a weirdly deformed caricature of the culture of the homeland. While mainland England has become evermore secularised and multicultural, Ulster Protestantism has become evermore obsessed and hag-ridden by its forbidding religion, evermore furiously insistent on its ethnic purity, evermore angry at what it perceives as its ‘betrayal’ by the great white god across the water.

Apart from the historical accident of a handful of symbols (Queen, flag, crucifix) it has grown utterly separate from English culture and is an almost unrecognisable caricature of it.

Loyalism is an ethnic nationalism which, paradoxically, uses the civic symbols of Britishness – Crown and Union Jack – to mark out an ethnic identity. In the process the civic content is emptied out: Loyalist Paramilitarism, for example, makes only too clear what a portion of the Loyalist community thinks of the rule of law, the very core of British civic identity. In the end, the Crown and the Union Jack are reduced to meaning what they signify when tattooed on the skin of poor, white teenagers. They are only badges of ethnic rage. (p.185)

Update

The situation Ignatieff was reporting on in 1993 was superseded by the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998 and the 23 years of peace which have followed. Nowadays, there is much feverish speculation that the peace may be jeopardised by the complicated economic and political fallout of Brexit. Maybe a new generation of men in balaclavas will return and think they can achieve something by blowing up cars and shooting farmers.

The bigger picture, though, is that Ulster is now part of a United Kingdom substantially changed since Ignatieff’s time, because of the devolution of Scotland and Wales. Somehow, Scotland and Wales are still part of something called the United Kingdom but articles every day in the press wonder how long this can last.

Personally, I feel like I’ve been hearing about Scottish nationalism and Plaid Cymru all my adult life. Although they now have their own expensive parliament buildings and control over their healthcare and education systems, the basic situation doesn’t seem to have changed much – both Scots and Welsh nationalists continue to make a good living criticising the English politicians who pay for their nations to remain solvent.

I have no skin in the game. If they want to be independent nations, let them. Fly free, my pretties. According to a 2020 YouGov poll, my indifference is fairly representative of my people, the fat lazy English:

Less than half of English people (46%) say they want Scotland to remain part of the UK. Few want to see the nation pull away, however, at just 13%. Most of the rest (34%) have no opinion, saying that they consider it a matter for the people of Scotland to decide.

It seems unlikely that Scotland or Wales will ever become independent nations or that Northern Ireland will join the Republic, and for the same simple reason. Money. All three receive substantial subsidies from London and would become poorer overnight if they left. Try and sell that to your electorate.

Brief summary

Reviewing the six nationalist issues reviewed in the book prompts a simple conclusion which is that: none of these conflicts have gone away. Nationalism is like a terrible disease: once it has gripped a people, a tribe, a region, and once it has been used to set populations at loggerheads with other neighbouring groups or with the very state they find themselves in, it is almost impossible to extirpate. Nationalism is a virus which has no cure. Like COVID-19 we just have to learn to live with it and try to mitigate its effects before they become too destructive, before there’s an outbreak of another, more virulent variety.

The Cold War as the last age of empire

The Cold War was a lot of things to a lot of people but I am still reeling from one of the biggest of Ignatieff’s Big Ideas, which is that the Cold War amounted to the last phase of imperialism.

There was the early phase of Portuguese and Spanish imperialism; there was the rivalry between the French and British around the world in the 18th century; the Europeans grabbed whatever bits of the world they could bite off during the 19th century; and then the French, British, Dutch, Belgians and a few others hung onto their colonies through the catastrophic twentieth century and into the 1960s.

Then they left in a great wind of change. But they did so at exactly the same time as the spreading Cold War meant that huge areas of the world came under the direct or indirect control of the Americans or the Soviets. Although it wasn’t their primary goal, the CIA supporting their authoritarian regimes and the Soviet advisers to countless communist groups, between them they sort of – up to a point – amounted to a kind of final reincarnation of imperial police. Up to a point, they policed and restrained their client states and their opponents around the world. They reined them in.

And then, in 1990, with little or no warning, the imperial police left. They walked away. And instead of blossoming into the wonderful, democratic, peaceful world which the naive and stupid expected – chaos broke out in a hundred places round the world. The gloves were off and ethnic nationalism and ethnic conflicts which had been bottled up for decades, exploded all over.

Because this ideology, this psychology of blood and belonging and ‘kill the outsider’ – it’s easier for hundreds of millions of people; it provides a psychological, cultural and linguistic home, a refuge in otherwise poverty-stricken, war-torn, economically doomed countries.

It offers reassurance and comfort to stricken populations, it flatters people that whatever is wrong with the country is not their fault – and it offers an easy route to power and strategies to stay in power for demagogic leaders, by whipping up ethnic or nationalist sentiment and justified violence against the Outsider. Demonising outsiders helps to explain away the injustices and economic failure which somehow, inexplicably, despite their heroic leadership, continues.

Blame it on the others, the outsiders, the neighbouring tribe, the people with funny shaped noses, different coloured skin, spooky religions, use any excuse. The poison of ethnic nationalism is always the easy option and even in the most advanced, Western, civic societies – it is always there, threatening to break out again.

Concluding thoughts on the obtuseness of liberalism

Ignatieff ends with a brief conclusion. It is that his liberal beliefs have profoundly misled him. Educated at a top private school, clever enough to hold positions at a series of the world’s best universities (Harvard, Cambridge) and to mingle with the most gifted of the cosmopolitan elite, he thought the whole world experienced life and thought like him. Idiotic. The journeys he made for this book have made him realise that the vast majority of the human population think nothing like him.

This was crystallised by one particular type of experience which kept cropping up wherever he went. On all his journeys he saw again and again that most of the warlords and fighters are young men aged 18 to 25 (p.187). Until he met them at roadblocks and checkpoints he had not understood what masculinity is. An etiolated, lily-pink liberal with the impeccable manners handed down by his family of Russian diplomats, Ignatieff had no idea what men, poor men, uneducated men, out there in the world, are really like.

Until I had encountered my quotient of young males intoxicated by the power of the guns on their hips I had not understood how deeply pleasurable it is to have the power of life and death in your hands. It is a characteristic liberal error to suppose that everyone fears and hates violence. I met lots of young men who loved the ruins, loved the destruction, loved the power that came from the barrels of their guns. (p.187)

Only someone so phenomenally clever and immaculately well educated could be so remote from the world as it actually is, from human nature in all its appalling greed and violence. Meeting gun-toting warlords made him realise more than ever that the aim of civic society is to quell, control and channel this kind of male aggression which he had never experienced before.

I began the journey as a liberal, and I end it as one, but I cannot help thinking that liberal civilisation – the rule of laws not men, of argument in place of force, of compromise in place of violence – runs deeply against the human grain and is only achieved and sustained by the most unremitting struggle against human nature. (p.189)

And the best all-round way to prevent the outburst of ethnic nationalism and the almost inevitable violence which accompanies it, is the creation and maintenance of a strong stable state with institutions which distribute and diversify power, which act as checks and balances on themselves, which are permanently capable of correction and reform, including the most important kind of reform which is the ability to get rid of your political leaders on a regular basis.

The only reliable antidote to ethnic nationalism turns out to be civic nationalism, because the only guarantee that ethnic groups will live side by side in peace is shared loyalty to a state, strong enough, fair enough, equitable enough, to command their obedience. (p.185)

The fundamental responsibility of a government is not to promote ‘equality’ and the raft of other fine, liberal values. They’re nice-to-haves. It is more profound than that. First and foremost it is the eternal struggle to build and maintain civic nationalism – because the alternative is horror.

Credit

Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism by Michael Ignatieff was published by BBC Books in 1993. All references are to the revised 1995 Vintage paperback edition.


New world disorder reviews

Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism by Michael Ignatieff (1994) – 1

This is an outstanding book, bubbling over with ideas and insights on a subject which is as relevant today as when it was written back in the early 90s. It’s actually the book of a BBC TV series. In 1993 Ignatieff and his five-man TV crew travelled to Croatia and Serbia, recently reunified Germany, Ukraine, Quebec, Kurdistan, and Northern Ireland to see at first hand what was already being heralded as the rise of a new kind of virulent nationalism following the end of Cold War and fall of the Soviet Union.

The text he’s produced is the extreme opposite of the two books of journalism about the Rwandan genocide which I’ve just reviewed, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch (1998) and Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey by Fergal Keane (1995).

What irritated me about those books was that the authors had travelled widely and had unparalleled access to loads of eye witnesses and key officials and yet were incapable of coming up with a single useful idea about what they had seen. The best Gourevitch could manage was repeated references to the Bible story of Cain and Abel and the best Keane could come up with at the very end of his book was the pathetic injunction ‘that we do not forget’ (p.191).

This is because they are journalists, paid to get to the trouble zone, report what they see, what people say, and leave it that. The lack of intellectual content worth the name explains why I find books by even very good journalists like John Simpson or Robert Fisk disappointingly empty of ideas.

By contrast, Ignatieff is a trained historian and political scientist, who has held a dazzling array of positions at academic institutions around the world, including a PhD from Harvard and senior research fellowship at Cambridge, before his writing and teaching became more involved with political theory, international law and human rights.

The result is that this book, although essentially a collection of travelogues and interviews just like Gourevitch and Keane’s, overflows with brilliant, invaluable insights into the origins and nature of the chaotic new nationalism and ethnic conflicts which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the imperial duopoly which had run the world from 1945 to 1990 (otherwise known as the Cold War).

Right at the start of the book, Ignatieff takes all he’s learned on his journeys and boils it down into a set of principles and insights which are laid out in his ten-page introduction. I think these ten pages are among the most intelligent things I’ve ever read on any subject. Here’s a summary.

Blood and Belonging

As it passes beyond a UN-held checkpoint in Pakrac between Serb- and Croat-held territory in the former Yugoslavia, the crew’s van is stopped by drunk Serbian paramilitaries who insist they are spies because they saw them talking to Croatians, and are about to hijack the van and drive it off who knows where, maybe to shoot them all, when one of the UN soldiers intervenes, persuades the drunk Serbs out of the van, and lets them drive on their way.

This was the moment in my journeys in search of the new nationalism when I began to understand what the new world order actually looks like: paramilitaries, drunk on plum brandy and ethnic paranoia, trading shots with each other across a wasteland; a checkpoint between them, placed there by something loftily called ‘the international community’, but actually manned by just two anxious adolescents… (p.2)

When the Berlin Wall came down Ignatieff, like other cosmopolitan liberals of his type, thought it heralded a new era of freedom and justice. This is because (as I keep banging on) Ignatieff and his class do not realise what a tiny tiny fraction of the world’s population they represent – highly privileged, affluent, super-well-educated, international liberals gaily flying around a world mostly inhabited by resentful peasantries crushed by poverty and trapped in failing states.

He says the Cold War was really an extension of the era of European imperialism but in which the world was ruled not by half a dozen European nations but by America or Russia. Cold War terror i.e. the fear of nuclear armageddon, produced peace and stability, of a sort. The fall of the Berlin wall signalled the end of this final phase of Western imperialism. But it wasn’t followed by a blossoming of civic nationalism of the sort Ignatieff and his fellow liberals hoped for (‘with blithe lightness of mind’), for the very simple reason that most people are not sensitive liberal playwrights like Vaclav Havel.

What has succeeded the last age of empire is a new age of violence. The key narrative of the new world order is the disintegration of nation states into ethnic civil war; the key architects of that order are warlords; and the key language of our age is ethnic nationalism. (p.2)

Three levels of nationalism

As a political doctrine, nationalism is the belief that the world’s people are divided into nations, and that each of these nations has the right of self-determination, either as self-governing units within existing nation states or as nation states of their own.

As a cultural ideal, nationalism is the claim that while men and women have many identities, it is the nation which provides them with their primary form of belonging.

As a moral ideal, nationalism is an ethic of heroic sacrifice, justifying the use of violence in the defence of one’s nation against enemies, internal or external. (p.3)

In the contexts Ignatieff is looking at, nationalism is about violence.

Nationalism is centrally concerned to define the conditions under which force or violence is justified in a people’s defence, when their right of self-determination is threatened or denied. Self-determination here may mean either democratic self-rule or the exercise of cultural autonomy, depending on whether the national group in question believes it can achieve its goals within the framework of an existing state or seeks a state of its own. (p.3)

Civic nationalism versus ethnic nationalism

Nationalisms talk a lot about ‘the people’ and sometimes invoke ideas of ‘democracy’ but this is deceptive, since ‘the people’ often turns out not to include a lot of the people who live in a particular area, in fact the exact opposite, it turns out that ‘the people’ refers to a restricted and highly defined set. To clarify this, Ignatieff defines another two types of nationalism.

Civic nationalism maintains that the nation should be composed of all those – regardless of race, colour, creed, gender, language or ethnicity – who subscribe to the nation’s political creed. This nationalism is called civic because it envisages the nation as a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values. This nationalism is necessarily democratic because it vests sovereignty in all of the people. (p.4)

Ignatieff says this concept of civic nationalism was pioneered in Great Britain which by the mid-eighteenth century consisted of a nation state united by a civic and not an ethnic definition of belonging i.e. shared attachment to certain institutions: the Crown, Parliament, the rule of law.

Admittedly this was a civic model restricted to white, (straight) male landowners. The history of nations characterised by this kind of civic nationalism, such as the UK and USA, can be seen as one in which during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, those excluded groups fought for full civic inclusion.

As a result of their struggle, most Western states now define their nationhood in terms of common citizenship and not by common ethnicity. (p.4)

The other type of nationalism is ethnic nationalism. This is typified by Germany. When Napoleon occupied the German principalities in 1806 he unleashed a wave of patriotic fervour. German poets and politicians argued that it was not the state which created a people – since they did not then possess one unified state – but the people, the ethnic group, the Volk, which forms the state. Instead of the cold logic of the Napoleonic code with its abstract insistence on ‘rights’, German writers across the board insisted a nation was made out of feeling, a feel for and love for the people’s language, religion, customs and traditions.

This German tradition of ethnic nationalism was to go on and reach its acme in the hysterical nationalism of Hitler and the Nazis. But Ignatieff points out that it was this form of ethnic or cultural nationalism – not the civic nationalism of Britain or France – which inspired intellectuals in all the countries of Eastern Europe which, in the nineteenth century, were controlled by foreign empires (Poles and Ruthenians and Baltic peoples by the Russian Empire; Serbs, Romanians and Bulgarians under the Ottoman Empire; Croats by the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

Sociological realism

Which of these two types of nationalism, civic or ethnic, is a more realistic reflection of actual societies? Which has more sociological realism?

Of these two types of nationalism, the civic has a greater claim to sociological realism. Most societies are not mono-ethnic; and even when they are, common ethnicity does not of itself obliterate division, because ethnicity is only one of many claims on an individual’s loyalty. According to the civic nationalist creed, what holds a society together is not common roots but law. By subscribing to a set of democratic procedures and values, individuals can reconcile their right to shape their own lives with their need to belong to a community. This in turn assumes that national belonging can be a form of rational attachment.

Ethnic nationalism claims, by contrast, that an individual’s deepest attachments are inherited, not chosen. It is the national community which defines the individual, not the individuals which define the national community. This psychology of belonging may have greater depth than civic nationalism’s but the sociology which accompanies it is a good deal less realistic. The fact that, for example two Serbs share Serbian ethnic identity may unite them against Croats, but it will do nothing to stop them fighting each other over jobs, spouses, scarce resources and so on. Common ethnicity, by itself, does not create social cohesion or community, and when it fails to do so, as it must, nationalist regimes are necessarily impelled towards maintaining unity by force rather than by consent. This is one reason why ethnic nationalist regimes are more authoritarian than democratic. (p.5)

You can see why civic nationalism is harder to create than ethnic nationalism because it depends on two things: strong, functioning, well-established and long-lasting institutions, and an educated population. The UK has both, having had universal primary school education for 150 years, and a complex web of long-running institutions like the monarchy, Houses of Parliament, an independent judiciary, local governments, courts, police forces and so on. It has taken a long time and successive generations of hard-working, selfless public servants, politicians, activists and reformers to achieve the current state of British civic nationalism, and nobody agrees it’s perfect. In fact everybody has an opinion about where it is still far from perfect and what needs to be reformed. But all this exists within a broad framework of civic nationalism, namely everyone agrees that all British citizens are equal and entitled to equal rights.

1. Ethnic nationalism is easier

Compared with the complexity of mature civic societies such as Britain, America or France, you can see how ethnic nationalism is simpler: a certain ethnic group seizes power and defines itself and its members and rests its power precisely by who it excludes: everyone not part of the ruling ethnic group who quickly find themselves being attacked as traitors, then rounded up and imprisoned.

Leaving all morality to one side, you can see why government by ethnic nationalism is always going to be quicker to define, set up and manage, especially in states which have little if any experience of the complex web of power centres, rules and traditions which make up civic nationalism.

On this reading it should come as no surprise to anyone that ethnic nationalism, being the quicker, easier option, should be the one opted for by rulers who suddenly find themselves liberated from the rule of imperial masters and with big complicated countries to run.

Roughly speaking, this explains what happened:

  • in the early 1960s in Africa, when the newly liberated post-colonial nations found they had to be ruled somehow and in the absence of the deep-rooted institutions and traditions required by civic nationalism, reverted to authoritarian rule often based around the ruler’s ethnic group, which led to numerous wars of independence fought by ethnic groups who wanted their own nations, for example Biafra in Nigeria and Katanga in Congo, and the long-running war of independence in Eritrea
  • in the early 1990s in eastern Europe, where the new rulers of the 15 or so nations freed from Soviet hegemony discovered that the quickest way to establish and consolidate power was with forms of nationalism which invoked the supremacy of their people, their Volk, by shared allegiance to language and religion instead of to the more abstract institutions of civic nationalism, a creed which led to actual civil wars in the former Yugoslavia and Ukraine
  • in the early 2010s, when a raft of Arab countries threw off their long-standing dictators but found that, instead of automatically transitioning to civic nationalism as so many day-dreaming liberals hope, promptly plunged into chaotic civil wars based on ethnic or religious allegiance, most notably in Libya and Syria

The tendency to authoritarianism and extremism of government by and on behalf of ethnic majorities explains the genocides in Rwanda and Sudan. In countries based on ethnic nationalism, the most extreme nationalists have a nasty habit of floating to the top and then, in situations of stress – such as the invasion and war in Rwanda or the famine in Sudan – they resort to the most extreme form of ethnic nationalism imaginable, which is the sustained attempt to exterminate everyone who doesn’t belong to the ruling ethnic group.

2. Ethnic nationalism fills a political vacuum

When the Soviet empire and its satellite regimes collapsed, the nation state structures of the region also collapsed, leaving hundreds of ethnic groups at the mercy of one another. Since none of these groups had the slightest experience of conciliating their disagreements by democratic discussion, violence or force became their arbiter. (p.6)

So ethnic nationalism flourishes where there is no tradition of democratic discussion and no experience of the (admittedly often complex and sometimes borderline corrupt) bargaining involved in democratic politics.

3. Negative reason for ethnic nationalism – avoidance of fear

The sense of belonging to an ethnic group within a nation based on ethnic nationalism has many aspects, positive and negative. The most obvious negative one, is the escape from fear. In a society falling to pieces, you are afraid of everyone. This fear is considerably lessened if you know you can at least trust everyone of your own ethnic group. In this respect, ethnic politics are an improvement on a state of total anarchy, where you can’t trust anyone.

In the fear and panic which swept the ruins of the communist states people began to ask: so who will protect me? Faced with a situation of political and economic chaos, people wanted to know who to trust, and who to call their own. Ethnic nationalism provided an answer which was intuitively obvious: only trust those of your own blood. (p.6)

Belonging, on this account, is first and foremost a protection against violence. Where you belong is where you are safe; and where you are safe is where you belong. (p.6)

This was the very important conclusion which came out of the many books I’ve read about the Weimar Republic and the chaotic social and economic situation of so much of continental Europe between the wars. The scared human animal prefers security to freedom. Given a choice between the politician who promises a crackdown on lawlessness, a return to order and stability, with the temporary curtailment of some human rights, and the politician who insists on the primacy of human rights but can’t promise anything about the economy, jobs and violence on the streets, people will always vote for the former. This explains why in the economic and political mayhem between the wars, almost every European nation ended up being ruled by authoritarian or out and out fascist governments.

4. Positive reasons for ethnic nationalism – belonging

That’s the negative aspect, escape from fear of anarchy. But there are also numerous positive aspects of ethnic nationalism which Ignatieff encapsulates as the sense of belonging.

At Oxford Ignatieff studied under Isiah Berlin (wow) and quotes him here to the effect that to be among your own people is to be confident that you will be understood, without having to explain. It is to feel at home among people who share the same language, catchphrases, jokes and references, love the same music, can quote the same national epic and so on.

‘They understand me as I understand them; and this understanding creates within me a sense of being someone in the world.” (quoted page 7)

This explains why the issue of language is so central to disputes in ethnic nationalism over the centuries. If the ‘official’ language, the language of street signs and government forms, is not the language you speak, then quite clearly you are not at home. Hence the issue of which language street signs are in can end up being a matter of life or death.

It also explains why so many of the ethnic nationalists Ignatieff meets are so sentimental. In Croatia, Ukraine and Belfast he met members of violent paramilitaries who showed a consistent tendency to get maudlin drunk, burst into tears or burst into rousing renditions of their national anthem or rebel songs. Sentimental kitsch is the characteristic art form of ethnic nationalists. (He nowhere mentions it, but the idea of a self-pitying, over-armed, drunk sentimentalism reminded me of a certain type of nostalgia for the Confederacy in the American South.)

5. Irresponsibility

There’s another positive aspect of the kind of ethnic nationalism he describes, which is its irresponsibility. Time and again in his journeys he talks to militiamen, paramilitaries and their political leaders, and finds them all saying the same thing: it’s not our fault. This avoiding of responsibility takes at least three forms: 1. it’s all the other side’s fault. 2. we’re the victims. 3. it’s all history’s fault.

Their fault

Again and again, drunk, self-pitying militiamen explain it was the other side who started it, we’re the victims in all this, we only took up arms to protect ourselves, to fight back. Ignatieff doesn’t mention the Rwanda genocide because it hadn’t taken place when he made his tour, but this is exactly the excuse made by every Hutu nationalist interviewed by Philip Gourevitch or Fergal Keane: ‘The Tutsis started it, the Tutsis used to lord it over us, the Tutsis invaded our country: so that’s why we have to exterminate every Tutsi we can find, even the grandparents and the little babies. Why can’t you understand?’

We’re only protecting ourselves

Same view given to Ignatieff about why the Serbs had to bomb Sarajevo, in a siege which went on long after he’d left, in fact from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996. Lasting 1,425 days, this made the siege of Sarajevo the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, lasting three times as long as the Battle of Stalingrad and more than a year longer than the siege of Leningrad. Talk to any Serb commander and they would patiently explain that they had to surround and bombard the city for 4 years in order to protect themselves.

History is to blame

All the militias knew far too much history. From the UDA and IRA in Belfast to the Serb and Croat militias, all these people know far too much about their country’s histories and the histories they know prove they are right. This disproves two great liberal nostrums which I’ve always queried:

  1. Those who ignore their own history are condemned to repeat it. Rubbish. It’s almost always the opposite, it’s the Serbs nursing their grievances going back to the Yugoslav civil war of 1941 to 1945 or, if you like, going all the way back to the famous battle of Kosovo in 1389, it’s the Croats nursing their grievance against wartime Chetniks; or the IRA celebrating their long tradition of martyrs or the UDA nursing endless grievance at the way they’re betrayed by the London government. For all these groups their history is a history of grievances and carefully tending it and memorising it traps them in the prison-house of their nationalist narratives and condemns them to repeat the same conflicts over and over. (It is in this spirit that James Joyce made his famous declaration, leaving Ireland to its endless squabbles in order to make a new life abroad, that ‘History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.’ Ethnic nationalists relive and re-enact the nightmare day after day but can never exorcise it.)
  2. History will prove us right. Rubbish. History is as contested as contemporary politics i.e. historians will argue about the significance and legacy of this or that event till the cows come home and very often are swayed by simple professional motivation i.e. the need to come up with a new angle, ‘shed new light’ and so on. The notion that there will eventually emerge one unanimous version of history is a fantasy.

But back to the main theme, blaming history is a way of avoiding taking responsibility yourself. Hence the drunken mumbling of some militia Ignatieff interviews that ‘history is to blame’. This is cognate with the white liberal guilt over empire which drives Gourevitch and Keane to lay blame for the Rwandan genocide on the Belgian authorities for introducing ethnic identity cards in the 1930s and thus hardening the divide between Hutus and Tutsis. This is where the objective study of history topples over into the crowd-pleasing activity of naming and blaming, of which there is no end.

6. Ethnic nationalism as career path = warlordism

Intellectual categorisation of ethnic nationalism risks overlooking another really obvious factor in the rise of ethnic nationalism, which is that it offers a career path to supreme power for men the world had otherwise overlooked and, especially, for latent psychopaths:

Nationalist rhetoric swept through these regions like wildfire because it provided warlords and gunmen with a vocabulary of opportunistic self-justification.

The anarchy of a collapsing state presents terror to most civilians but career opportunities for those brave and amoral enough to seize them. Hence warlordism, a version of the mafia. Local strong men emerge who dominate their area, who rule through fear and intimidation and violence but, if you are of the right ethnic group and follow the rules, they also bring peace and certainty. Which is why Ignatieff is taken on a tour of his fiefdom by one such local strongman and is impressed at the way his open-top car is greeted by cheering crowds, women offering their babies to be kissed, local businessmen giving him gifts.

Some people might find this easiest to understand this as a kind of mafia rule, but it reminds me of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf and its depiction of a Dark Age Europe made up of a patchwork of very localised regions ruled over by thousands and thousands of warrior kings who ruled by dint of winning battles and distributing loot to their soldiers. It’s this kind of historical perspective i.e. the unchanging link between Europe 500 AD and 2000 AD, which makes me think human nature, and the kind of social structures it creates, over and over again, in all times and places, doesn’t change very much.

Ethnic nationalism within civic states

Obviously, you can have ethnically chauvinist movements within civic nationalist societies, and this would include the movement for Catalan independence in Spain and Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland, who themselves spawn their opposites, Spanish nationalists within Catalonia, and the special case of the Unionists within Northern Ireland.

Cosmopolitanism and privilege

Finally, Ignatieff addresses the issue of his own perspective and makes the one cardinal point that I have made hundreds of times in this blog which is that cosmopolitan intellectuals have proved to be wrong, wrong and wrong again about the world they live in.

He devotes a fairly long passage to explaining why. He and his ilk of jet-setting intellectuals thought the rest of the world was like them, an associate professorship at Harvard, a research fellowship at Cambridge, a year-long teaching placement in Paris. Winners of life’s game flying round the world on expense accounts, eating out at fine restaurants, knowledgeable about wine and poetry. He and his friends thought the world was set to become ever-more cosmopolitan, ever-more multicultural, ever-more relaxed about race and ethnicity.

But Michael was the son of a Canadian diplomat, who moved his family around the world to different postings, so young Michael grew up naturally cosmopolitan, speaking numerous languages. He was sent to a top private school in Canada where he acquired the elite education and psychological confidence to feel right at home discussing definitions of liberty with Isaiah Berlin. Just like BBC correspondent and superstar Fergal Keane attended the leading boys private school in Ireland, works for the impeccably liberal BBC, and found himself at a complete loss to explain the Rwandan genocide.

Neither of them can comprehend the anger of being an outsider, the all-consuming rage caused by being a member of the poor, the exploited, the repressed, the ignored, the downtrodden, the humiliated, the shat-upon, the mocked and the ridiculed, told they are losers and deserve to be losers for the whole of their lives…

And how – when society starts to fall apart, when there’s an economic collapse, when an invading army turns everything upside down – then it’s your turn to get your revenge, to get your own back, to show them all you aren’t a slave and lackey to be ignored and humiliated but a man, a real man, a strong man, who can click his fingers and have whole villages exterminated, who can hold the life or death of prisoners in the palm of his hand, who distributes the pickings from the looted houses among his followers, likewise the kidnapped women and keeps the best for himself.

Neither Fergal nor Michael have a clue what that must feel like and so simply can’t comprehend what motivates so many of the ordinary soldiers, militiamen and paramilitaries they meet to carry out the murders, gang-rapes, tortures and massacres which their books describe.

But the big difference is Michael is aware of it. Not just aware, but places his own self-awareness of his privilege and ignorance within a dazzling intellectual, political and historical framework which does an enormous amount to clarify, define and help us understand the broader sociological and political causes of the new world disorder.

He acknowledges that the ‘privilege’ he has enjoyed is the reverse side of the coin of the plight of most people in the world. During the Cold War most of the world was divided up into American or Soviet spheres of influence, and these paymasters acted to restrain, up to a point, the behaviour of their clients in countries around the world. But when the Cold War ended, this support and this restraint disappeared from scores and scores of countries where fear of the Cold War master had kept an uneasy peace.

As a result, large sections of Africa, Eastern Europe, Soviet Asia, Latin America and the Near East no longer come within any clearly defined sphere of imperial or great power influence. This means that huge sections of the world’s population have won ‘the right to self determination’ on the cruellest possible terms: they have been simply left to fend for themselves. Not surprisingly, their nation states are collapsing, as in Somalia and in many other nations in Africa. (p.9)

So, with the imperial police withdrawn from large parts of the world, ethnic rivalries and enmities which had been kept bottled up for generations, could burst out anew: Yugoslavia. Rwanda. The new chaos only appears inexplicable to Ignatieff and most of his readers because they don’t grasp the fundamental geopolitical realities and, more importantly, are limited in their understanding, by their sociological situation.

Globalism in a post-imperial age only permits a post-nationalist consciousness for those cosmopolitans who are lucky enough to live in the wealthy West. It has brought only chaos and violence for the many small peoples too weak to establish defensible states of their own. (p.9)

And:

It is only too apparent that cosmopolitanism is the privilege of those who can take a secure nation state for granted. (p.9)

And:

A cosmopolitan, post-nationalist spirit will always depend, in the end, on the capacity of nation states to provide security and civility for their citizens. (p.9)

Thus when Keane gets into a tricky confrontation with border police, he can play his BBC and British government card. When Gourevitch gets into a tight spot, he can point out he’s an American and his government probably supplies arms to whatever ramshackle militia he’s dealing with. Or both can buy their way out of trouble with dollars, which the BBC or the New Yorker can provide by the suitcase full in order to rescue them. Both dip their toes in the chaos of failed states confident that they always can, if push comes to shove, buy their way out and get on the next plane home.

Neither of them seem to appreciate what it means to be someone who grows up in a society where there is no escape and where ‘kill or be killed’ is the only law and which has been drummed into you since childhood.

Ignatieff makes the dynamite point that many of the most senseless killings and brutal murders can be understood if you grasp the idea that they are fighting and murdering in order to bring a full, final and complete peace to their countries so that they can enjoy the same sense of security and safety which Gourevitch, Keane and Ignatieff have taken for granted all their lives.

Summary

It is Ignatieff’s mighty achievement to not only have created a conceptual framework which makes sense of the panorama of post-Cold War anarchy, extracting core principles and ideas which shed light on every aspect of the new nationalism; and not only to deliver high quality intellectual insights about all the conflicts this book goes on to investigate; but also to deliver an unblinking, candid and winning analysis of his own privileged position, which makes him such a fantastic guide to the new world disorder of the 1990s.

Credit

Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism by Michael Ignatieff was published by BBC Books in 1993. All references are to the revised 1995 Vintage paperback edition.


The new world disorder

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Berlin Wall came down and the countries of eastern Europe and central Asia were freed from Soviet tyranny, many Western politicians and commentators optimistically thought this marked the end of history and the dawning of a golden era of peace and democracy. Well, as any fool could have told them, they were wrong, very wrong.

Instead, relieved of the threat of socialist parties and movements (which found themselves suddenly deprived of moral, political and sometimes financial support by the Soviets) a new more virulent form of neo-liberal capitalism triumphed around the world. Workers and even middle classes in the developed world found their living standards steadily declining, and entire third world countries found themselves being exploited even more effectively by an international capitalist system evermore focused on supporting the lifestyles of westerners and a new class of international global super-rich.

Lacking political maturity (i.e. established democratic systems with a track record of the peaceful transition of power from one elected administration to another; the multifarious aspects of civil society such as a free press, charities) many newly liberated nations, afflicted with economic stress, political instability and unresolved nationalist-ethnic-border issues, not surprisingly, experienced major problems.

The specific causes were different in each case but instead of an outbreak of peace, love and understanding, the 1990s saw the Gulf War, the collapse of Somalia, civil war in former Yugoslavia and the Rwandan genocide, to name just the highlights.

The Islamic terrorist attacks of 9/11 added a whole new layer of misunderstanding and confusion to an already chaotic world, leading directly to the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and subsequent destabilisation of the entire region. And was followed by the so-called Arab Spring of 2011 which, once again, naive liberal commentators welcomed as an outbreak of democracy and equality but almost immediately led to chaos, civil war and the rise of regional warlords, in Syria and Libya to take the two most notable examples.

New world disorder reviews

Congolese soldiers in the world wars

Congo: The Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck is a wonderland of a book. The accounts he gives of the involvement of Congolese soldiers in the two world wars are so remarkable and so little known that it’s worth recording them in a standalone blog post.

In his characteristic style, van Reybrouck interweaves traditional, factual history with first-hand, eye-witness memories by veterans or the families of veterans, which add colour and human scale to such huge abstract events.

First World War (pages 129 to 139)

Congo as a buffer state

At the Congress of Vienna in 1815 Belgium itself was conceived as a sort of buffer state between the powers, between France and Prussia. In a similar way, at the Berlin Conference of 1885, King Leopold  persuaded the powers that his seizure of this huge chunk of Africa would serve as a sort of buffer between territory controlled by the old rivals Britain and France in west Africa and the territory claimed in east Africa by the new kid on the block, Germany.

The final agreement of colonial borders in Africa meant that Congo shared a 430-mile-long border with German East Africa. Given that the Germans owned Cameroon to the north-west of Congo, it made sense for them to ponder seizing a corridor through the Belgian colony in order to link German East and West Africa. In fact, just before war broke out, the German foreign office actually approached the British with the suggestion of dividing Congo between them, which the British wisely rejected.

Germany attacks

After war broke out in Europe in August 1914, the colonial authorities expected Congo to remain neutral, which it did for all of 11 days, until Germany attacked. A steamship crossed Lake Tanganyika from the German side and shelled the Congo port of Mokolubu, sinking some canoes, then German soldiers landed and cut the telephone wire. A week later the Germans attacked the lakeside port of Lukuga, too.

Main battle zones

Because of the lack of roads and infrastructure, the First World War in Africa wasn’t fought along huge fronts, as in Europe, but was a matter of seizing strategic points and roads. Congolese forces ended up fighting on three fronts, Cameroon, Rhodesia and East Africa.

1. In 1914 a handful of Belgian officers and 600 Congolese troops were sent to help the British in the battle for Cameroon where German resistance to British, French and Belgian colonial units finally ended in March 1916.

2. By mid-1915 South African troops had secured the surrender of German South-West Africa but German forces threatened Rhodesia and so the Belgian government in exile (in Le Havre) ordered seven Belgian and 283 Congolese soldiers to help the British defend it.

Battle of the lakes

3. But the most intense Congo-German engagement was in the East. Here the border between Congo and German East Africa had only been finalised as late as 1910. In 1915 German forces led by Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck made repeated attempts to move into Kivu district (to the west of Lake Kivu, which formed part of the border between Belgian and German territory), with a view to pushing on north to seize the Kilo-Moto gold mines of the Ituri rain forest.

The Germans took initial control of lakes Kivu and Tanganyika which they patrolled with armed steamships. In reply the Allies i.e. the British, organised the transport of steamships broken up into parts all the way up the Congo and then across land to the lakes. They also sent four aquaplanes, which undertook a campaign to bomb and sink the German ships.

The Tabora campaign

Meanwhile, a large infantry force of 15,000 soldiers was assembled on the east Congo border under Force Publique commander, General Charles Tombeur. An important fact to remember is that, in the absence of decent roads, almost all the materiel needed for these campaigns had to be carried by porters, just as in Victorian times. It’s estimated that for every soldier who went into battle there were seven porters. In total, throughout the war years, it’s estimated that some 260,000 native porters were recruited or dragooned, out of a total population of less than ten million. This disruption had a negative impact on local economies and food production, but the conditions of the porters weren’t much better, with all experiencing inadequate food, shelter and little drinking water. As usual in every conflict, disease became rife and about one in ten of the porters died on active service, a total of some 26,000, compared to 2,000 soldiers.

As to the campaign itself, in March 1916 General Tombeur led his army across the border into Rwanda and seized the capital, Kigali, on 6 May. They then marched the 370 miles south-east to Tabora, which had been a key staging post for the explorers of the 1870s and 1880s and was now the nexus of German administration. It was the largest engagement of the campaign. Tombeur’s forces joined with another army which had marched from Lake Tanganyika and, after ten days and nights of intense fighting, Tabora fell to the Belgian-Congo forces on 19 September 1916. The Belgian flag was raised in the town centre amid widespread celebrations.

In 1917 Tabora was used as a staging post for a campaign to capture Mahenge, 300 miles to the south, but the battle of Tabora was the one which went down in colonial memory. Tombeur was given a peerage and songs were written about his famous victory.

Interview with Martin Kabuya

Typical of van Reybrouck’s method of humanising history, he tracks down an army veteran, Martin Kabuya, whose grandfather fought in the Tabora campaign and, he claims, provided cover for the soldier who raised the Belgian flag in the  conquered town square (p.135). And then talks to Hélène Nzimbu Diluzeti, 94-year-old widow of Thomas Masamba Lumoso, a Great War veteran who served in the TSF or telégraphie sans fils (i.e. wireless) section from 9 August 1914 to 5 October 1918, so for only a weeks short of the entire duration of the war (pages 135 to 137).

Here’s the map van Reybrouck provides. You can see the black arrows indicating movement of Congolese forces through the two small unnamed states of Rwanda and Burundi towards Tabora in what is now called Tanzania but was then German East Africa. On the top left of the map you can see the borders of Cameroon and understand how German strategists, at one point, might have fantasised about annexing northern Congo in order to for a corridor of German colonial territory from Tanzania through north Congo and joining up with Cameroon. One of many colonial pipe dreams.

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The Congolese in Belgium

Not many Congolese soldiers had time to be transported to Belgium before it fell to the Germans’ swift advance in August 1914. Van Reybrouck tells us the stories of two of them, Albert Kudjabo and Paul Panda Farnana, members of the Congolese Volunteer Corps. They were among the tens of thousands deployed to defend the Belgian city of Namur but the Germans swiftly captured it and these two Africans who spent the next four years in various prisoner of war camps. Among transfers between camps, forced labour and various humiliations, they were interviewed by the Royal Prussian Phonographic Committee which recorded Kudjabo singing traditional songs. The recordings survive to this day (p.138).

Van Reybrouck returns to the two POWs on page 178 to describe their chagrin and anger when they were finally repatriated to from Germany to Belgium only to read commentators in the press saying the likes of them should be packed off as soon as possible back to the land of bananas (p.178). They had fought side by side with their Belgian brothers to protect the motherland. Where was the gratitude? It left a legacy of bitterness.

Paul Panda Farnana

We know a lot about Farnana in particular because he played a central role in founding the Union Congolaise in August 1919, an organisation set up to assist ‘the moral and intellectual development of the Congolese race’. The Union called for greater involvement of the natives in the colonial administration and opened branches across Belgium.

In December 1920 Farnana addressed the first National Colonial Congress in Brussels and then took part in the second Pan-African Congress organised by American civil rights activist W.E.B du Bois. In 1929 Farnana returned to Congo and settled in his native village, but died there, unmarried and childless in 1932. He is often considered the first Congolese intellectual, but his was a very isolated voice. It would take another world war and decades of simmering discontent before real change could be affected.

Consequences of the Great War

After Germany’s defeat its African colonies were parcelled out to the allies. England took German East Africa which was renamed Tanganyika (and then Tanzania, on independence in 1961). Belgium was handed the two small states on the eastern borders of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.

Earlier in the book van Reybrouck described the process whereby colonial administrators defined and helped to create tribal identities. Originally much more fluid and overlapping, these names and categories hardened when the authorities issued identity cards on which every Congolese had to match themselves to a limited list of bureaucratic tribal ‘identities’.

When they took over Rwanda, the Belgian authorities applied the same technique, insisting that the previously fluid and heterogenous Rwandans define themselves as one of three categories, Tutsi, Hutu or Twas (pygmy), an enforced European categorisation which was to bitterly divide the country and lead, ultimately, to the calamitous Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Although the war disrupted societies and led to significant native casualties in the eastern part of the country, the mining regions such as Katanga experienced an economic boom and huge explosion of jobs which increased urbanisation. But after the war there was a sudden drop in demand which led to layoffs, unrest and strikes.

Second World War (pages 182 to 189)

And then it happened all over again, except on a bigger scale, in 1940. In 18 days the German army rolled through Belgium as part of its conquest of France, Belgium was defeated and occupied. While the Belgian government fled to England, King Leopold III was taken prisoner to Germany. For a while there was uncertainty in the colony about which way it would jump – support the victorious Nazis or align with the humiliated government in exile? The decision was taken by the man on the scene, Governor General Pierre Ryckmans who to his great credit decided the Belgian Congo would align with the allies and fight fascism.

Ethiopia

Mussolini had invaded Haile Selassie’s Abyssinia in 1935. In 1940 Churchill sent troops from British Kenya into Ethiopia to neutralise the Italian threat. Starting in February 1941 the Brits were reinforced by the eleventh battalion of the Congo Force Publique. This consisted of 3,000 Congolese soldiers and 2,000 bearers.

They drove across British-controlled Sudan in blistering heat but had to manage the mountainous west of Ethiopia mostly on foot. From scorching heat it started to rain and the troops found themselves mired in mud. The Congolese took the small towns of Asosa and Gambela but faced a stiffer challenge at the fortified garrison town of Saio. After heavy shelling, on 8 June 1941, the town surrendered. Congo forces took nine Italian generals including the commander of all Italian forces in East Africa, 370 Italian officers, 2,574 noncoms and 1,533 native soldiers, along with a huge amount of munitions and equipment.

Van Reybrouck makes the droll point that the expulsion of the Italians (who had only held Ethiopia for 6 years) allowed the return of the emperor Haile Selassie, which gave renewed vigour to the small sect of Rastafarians in faraway Jamaica who had started worshipping the emperor as a deity during the 1930s. Thus Congolese soldiers helped in creating the spiritual side of reggae!

What Tabora had been in World War One, Saio was in World War Two, a resounding victory for African troops. More than that, for the first time in history an African nation had been liberated by African troops (p.185).

Nigeria

Van Reybrouck interviews Congo veterans who fought in the campaign, Louis Ngumbi and André Kitadi. He takes a path through the complicated wartime events in north Africa through the career of Kitadi. Having routed the Italians in the East, the focus switched to West Africa. Kitadi was a radio operator in the Congo army. In autumn 1942 he was shipped up to Nigeria and trained for 6 months in readiness to take Dahomey (modern Benin) from the Vichy French. However during the training period, Dahomey switched to General de Gaulle’s Free French and so the focus now switched to Libya where German forces under Rommel were based and repeatedly threatened to invade Egypt.

Kitadi and the other Congolese soldiers travelled across the desert of Chad (a French colony run by a black governor allied to de Gaulle). Van Reybrouck dovetails Kitadi’s story with that of Martin Kabuya, another radio operator in the Force Publique, who had also been shipped to Nigeria, but now found himself sent by sea right around Africa and up through the Suez Canal.

Egypt

Kitadi spent a year in a camp outside Alexandria. There were lots of Italian prisoners of war, kept in barbed wire POW camps. The Arabs stole everything. Kabuya was stationed at Camp Geneva near the Suez Canal, intercepting enemy Morse code messages. Once he was attacked by a big SS man who he stabbed in the gut with a bayonet and killed.

Palestine

When fighting in Europe ended, both men stayed in the army and were moved to Palestine to help with the new British mandate there (p.188).

The paradox of scale

Paradoxically, although the scale and reach of the Second World War was dramatically larger than the first, the involvement of Congolese was significantly smaller for the simple reason that the army no longer needed bearers and porters – they had trucks and lorries. So the number of Congolese directly involved in the war was nothing like the 260,000 Congolese porters dragooned into service in 1914-18, with the results that casualties were correspondingly much smaller.

The odyssey of Libert Otenga

The strength of van Reybrouck’s approach is demonstrated by the story of Libert Otenga. Otenga joined a mobile medical unit of Belgian doctors and Congolese medics.

The Belgian field hospital became known as the tenth BCCS, the tenth Belgian Congo Casualty Clearing Station. It had two operating tents and a radio tent. In the other tents there were beds for thirty patients and stretchers for two hundred more. During the war, the unit treated seven thousand wounded men and thirty thousand who had fallen ill. Even at the peak of its activities it consisted of only twenty-three Belgians, including seven doctors, and three hundred Congolese. Libert Otenga was one of them.

Van Reybrouck tracks down an ageing Otenga in Kinshasa to hear his story. First the medical unit was sent to Somalia. Then they went with British-Belgian troops to Madagascar, where they tended German prisoners of war. After Madagascar, the unit went by ship to Ceylon, where the medical unit was reorganised, and then on to India, to the Ganges delta in modern Bangladesh, a long way up the river Brahmaputra and then overland to the border with Burma, a British colony which the Japanese had captured in 1942. This was their longest posting, they treated soldiers and civilians, they had an air ambulance at their disposal. As van Reybrouck remarks:

The fact that Congolese paramedics cared for Burmese civilians and British soldiers in the Asian jungle is a completely unknown chapter in colonial history, and one that will soon vanish altogether. (p.189)

The travels of Congolese forces during the Second World War

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Congo and the atom bomb

The uranium in the Big Boy bomb dropped on Hiroshima contained uranium mined in the mineral-rich Katanga province of Congo (p. 190).

Edgar Sengier, then managing director of Union Minière, saw to it that Congo’s uranium reserves did not fall into the wrong hands. Shinkolobwe had the world’s largest confirmed deposit of uranium. When the Nazi threat intensified just before the war, he had had 1,250 metric tons (1,375 U.S. tons) of uranium shipped to New York, then flooded his mines. Only a tiny stock still present in Belgium ever fell into German hands. (p.190)

The Cold War

During the war the Congo had come to America’s attention as an important source of raw materials for war goods. By 1942 the Japanese had captured most of the Far East, so new sources were needed. the Congo turned out to be a vital source of metals like copper, wolfram, tin and zinc, and of vegetable products such as rubber, copal, cotton, quinine, palm oil for soap and, surprisingly, use in the vital steel industry. (p.191)

This was before the scientists of the Manhattan Project discovered how to make an atom bomb at which point uranium became a vital resource of strategic significance. All this explains America’s interest in the Congo in the 15 years after the war, and then its intense involvement in the events surrounding independence and its support of the dictator Mobutu through the entire Cold War period.

Conclusion

One way of seeing these events are as colourful sidelights on the two world wars and then the low level capitalist-communist antagonism which followed and van Reybrouck’s focus on individual experiences helps the reader understand how all our lives are determined and shaped by vast impersonal historic forces.

Another way of looking at it, is to reflect that from the moment it was first mapped and explored by Stanley in the late 1870s, the second largest country in Africa has never been free of interference, control and exploitation by Europe and America.

Credit

Congo: the epic history of a people by David Van Reybrouck was published in Dutch by De Bezige Bij in 2010. All references are to the paperback version of the English translation by Sam Garrett, published by Fourth Estate in 2015.

Surprisingly for a contemporary book, Congo: The Epic History of a People is available online in its entirety.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer by Tim Jeal (3)

Working for King Leopold, 1879 to 1885

The biggest blot on Stanley’s reputation is that he devoted the longest single part of his working life to working for King Leopold II of Belgium helping to map out and establish the core infrastructure for what would become the notorious Congo Free State. This was the enormous area, corresponding to the modern Democratic Republic of Congo, which Leopold managed to get assigned to his own personal rule at the Congress of Berlin in 1885. Leopold posed as a great philanthropist, a promoter of civilisation and Christianity and doughty abolisher of the widespread Arab slave trade which Stanley and all the other explorers had discovered.

It took until the late 1890s for news to leak out of the atrocities Belgian soldiers and overseers were committing on the native population, which slowly brewed up into an international scandal, which led Leopold to hand over the colony to the Belgian government, and the whole humanitarian catastrophe to become the quintessential example of imperialist hypocrisy, exploitation and brutality. The stories which leaked out of unimaginable brutality against the native peoples of the region formed the basis of Joseph Conrad’s harrowing novella, Heart of Darkness (1899). The whole story is told in Adam Hochschild’s harrowing history, King Leopold’s Ghost (published exactly one hundred years after the Conrad, in 1999).

Anyway, the point is that Stanley was approached by representatives of the king, entered discussions and finally agreed to sign a five-year contract to use his knowledge of the Congo to establish a basic transport infrastructure. This consisted of a road from the coast via a succession of small settlements he established or created trading stations at (Boma, Vivi, Isangile, Manyanga, Mfwa) up to the so-called Stanley Pool, designed to bypass the river’s many impassible rapids and cascades. He was a hands-on manager of the other Europeans and the many African labourers co-opted for the work, earning him the humorous nickname Bula Matari or ‘Breaker of Rocks’. Stanley was paid £1,000 a year.

Five years is a long time and much happened, notably: 1. Stanley became incensed by the brutality and racism of the Belgian officers under his nominal command. 2. He very slowly began to suspect Leopold was not the benevolent philanthropist he was posing as and Jeal notes the many letters he wrote Leopold insisting that the white man only had the right to lease property and no right to seize or claim ownership of native land. Stanley insisted that no Belgian officer was entitled to treat the Congolese:

‘as though they were conquered subjects ..This is all wrong. They are subjects – but it is we who are simply tenants.’

Up the roads he built were transported steamships, broken into sections and reassembled above the rapids, which hugely expanded access to the upper Congo.

3. Stanley faced the rivalry of the French explorer, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, who entered the Congo from the north and tried repeatedly to claim the entire north bank of the river and its hinterland for France, requiring repeated negotiations, threats and recriminations, carried out not only on the ground in Congo, but in Paris, London and Brussels, as Leopold managed the threat from the French, while Stanley invoked the possibility of the British stepping in – the last thing both the continentals wanted.

Jeal is writing a revisionist biography. His aim is to exonerate Stanley. As such he describes in detail the various meetings between Stanley and Leopold, quotes from letters between them, the contract Stanley signed, correspondence with intermediaries, diary and journal extracts, all tending in the same direction, which is to show that Stanley took Leopold at his word and believed him a genuine philanthropist. To be fair, so did plenty of other politicians, statesmen, journalists, missionaries and concerned parties.

The crimes against humanity Leopold sanctioned (the most notorious was cutting off the hands of natives who had failed to collect a set amount of rubber per week) only began to take place in the 1890s, well after Stanley had completed his five year contract in 1884 – although he was kept on by Leopold on a retainer and a fractious relationship for a few more years. And news about the atrocities only began to leak out to the press via reports of a handful of activists in the later 1890s, over ten years after Stanley had ceased all contact with the king.

King Leopold juxtaposed with just some of the millions of Congolese who were mutilated during his personal rule

Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, 1886 to 1889

When the Khedive of Egypt had gone bankrupt in 1882 the British had stepped in to administer Egypt and Sudan. Partly as a response to Western ‘occupation’ there had arisen the Mahdi, a low-born Egyptian who presented himself as a charismatic Islamic leader and raised impressive numbers of followers. General Gordon had been administering the southernmost province of British Egypt, named Equatoria, since 1873.

Alarmed at the rise of the Mahdist forces, the British government sent General Gordon to Khartoum with instructions to secure the evacuation of loyal soldiers and civilians and to depart with them. In defiance of those instructions, after evacuating about 2,500 civilians he retained a smaller group of soldiers and non-military men and remained, fortifying the town against a siege which lasted almost a year.

During this time there was huge publicity in the press about plucky Gordon holding out against the mad Mahdi and the forces of barbarism. The government hesitated and worried about the cost but eventually sent an expeditionary force to fight its way through to Gordon and rescue him. As is fairly well known they were too late. After a long siege, the Mahdist forces finally breached the defences of Khartoum on 26 January 1885 and killed the entire British garrison including Gordon and most of the population of the town. An estimated 10,000 were killed.

Apart from the penny-pinching reluctance of the government to launch the relief expedition, and the way the British public memorialise British heroic failures (the charge of the Light Brigade, the siege of Mafeking, the Somme, Dunkirk) the other notable thing about the incident is the immense power of the press. Gordon’s heroics were very widely reported and the matter became one of general public interest, forcing the government to act.

All the same forces came into play in the Emin Pasha affair. With Gordon dead, there remained a British force even further south into Sudan, led by one Emin Pasha, and the issue now arose of how to rescue him and his ‘heroic’ soldiers. Pasha was depicted as a brave soldier of the Empire and a noble fighter against the evils of slavery. On the back of the outcry over Gordon, a committee was set up to lobby for the rescue of Pasha and his men, whose whereabouts was not known exactly. The money came pouring in from public subscriptions (the campaign raised a total of £32,000) and who was chosen to lead the expedition into a particularly obscure region of central Africa? Stanley.

In Jeal’s account almost every element of the two year long expedition was a fiasco and what wasn’t a fiasco was a catastrophe. It can be divided, maybe, into three components.

1. Pasha’s background

It is quite staggering to discover the discrepancy between the stereotype of the noble Christian administrator and abolisher of slavery which Pasha was painted as by the popular press, and the disappointing reality. The beauty of a biography as long and detailed as Jeal’s is you get to learn so much about minor or secondary figures that it at times has the richness and complexity of a novel.

Pasha was no dauntless Briton but had been born Eduard Schnitzer, to Lutheran parents in the Prussian province of Silesia. In 1864, aged twenty-four, this bearded and bespectacled German had qualified as a doctor in Berlin, but had failed on a bureaucratic technicality to be granted a government licence to practise, he settled in Albania – then a Turkish province – where he set up as a doctor. A brilliant linguist, he soon added Albanian and Turkish to the five other languages he already spoke. He was a first-rate pianist and chess player, and also excelled as a botanist and ornithologist. In 1870 Emin joined the staff of Ismail Hakki Pasha, Governor of northern Albania, and served with him till his death three years later. During this time he had an affair with the Pasha’s wife, and after she became a widow, lived with her as she were his own spouse. In 1875, he ran out of money and took Madame Hakki, her four children and six slave girls to stay with his parents in Germany. While there – realising he could not support ten people indefinitely – he abandoned Madame Hakki, and fled the country. He would not contact his family again for fourteen years. (p.315)

See what I mean by ‘like a novel’? By 1875 Emin had made his way to Khartoum (as far away from h is angry wife as he could get), set up practice as a doctor. He now posed as an Arab of Arab birth and came to the attention of General Gordon, Governor-General of the Sudan. In 1878 Gordon appointed Pasha Governor of Equatoria, then the Mahdi rising occurred, Gordon was massacred after a prolonged siege, and the British press clamoured for the noble Pasha to be found and rescued.

2. The expedition

It was the most gruelling and death-ridden of Stanley’s big three expeditions. The cause was starvation. The expedition was very well funded, it was the largest and best-equipped to go to Africa, had plenty of native porters and more white officers than Stanley had had before. It landed on the west coast with the aim of travelling thousands of miles up the Congo before branching off where the Congo makes its great turn to the south, to head east along the Aruwimi river, in order to strike overland to Lake Albert at the southernmost tip of Equatoria.

Leopold had promised Stanley use of his steamers above the Stanley Pool, which the explorer had been responsible for transporting there several years earlier, but in the event all but one were out of commission, which significantly delayed and complicated logistics.

At Yambuya on the Aruwimi, the expedition was running so low on food, and so many porters had deserted that Stanley took the fatal decision of dividing it in two, leaving the majority of goods with several white officers in the rear, depending on a promise from the notorious Arab slaver, Tippu Tip, that he would provide hundreds of additional carriers. Leaving the rear column behind, Stanley forged on through what turned out to be ruinously difficult terrain through the Ituri forest where his own men died of starvation and disease, before emerging into the territory of inhospitable and violent tribes. Of the 389 who set out from Yambuya, only 169 survived the gruelling trek through Ituri. But they had hired many more porters along the way, not least from the slave trader Tippu Tip, so it’s estimated that over 400 lives were lost in total (p.370).

It took some time to fight off the local tribes, try to negotiate alliances and safe passage, before Stanley located Pasha and his motley garrison of Arabs and Sudanese. The two men finally met on 29 April 1888 and Stanley was disconcerted to discover that Emin was in perfectly good health and none too keen on being ‘discovered’ or ‘rescued’. In fact Pasha and his men were able to feed Stanley’s emaciated and fever-stricken followers, thus ‘rescuing the rescuers.’

And, in a major disillusionment, it turned out Pasha wasn’t very keen to be taken back to ‘civilisation’ where he strongly suspected Madame Hakki would quickly take him to court (he was to be proved right about this) but more importantly he deceived Stanley about the paper-thin authority he had over his own troops, who didn’t want to take Stanley’s route of travelling east along the familiar slave route back to Zanzibar, and preferred to travel back north through their own native lands. Pasha’s men mutinied.

Meanwhile, Stanley trekked back towards the rear column with supplies. It is difficult for a modern reader to get their head around the incredible delays and protracted timeframes. The rear column had, by this stage, not had any word or instructions from Stanley for over a year. Half way back they encountered an officer named William Bonny who told them the disastrous fate of the rear column.

3. Pasha’s downfall

There were a lot of issues persuading Pasha to take the eastwards route to Zanzibar, and managing the potentially dangerous defection of many of his most senior officers, which Jeal describes in great documentary detail. What stood out for me was Pasha’s fate. When the survivors of this huge, devastating and gruelling expedition finally made it back to Zanzibar, the consul’s residence and ‘civilisation’, a big party was held. At the height of the festivities, Emin Pasha, the centre of the entire £32,000, three-year operation which had cost so many lives, was found badly injured in the street outside, having fallen from a second-storey balcony.

Did he get drunk, wander onto the balcony and, being short sighted, not see the low balustrade and simply fallen over it? Or was it a suicide attempt, given that the enormous publicity surrounding the affair, all across Europe, had alerted his long-abandoned wife, Madame Hakki, that Pasha was alive, and she had begun proceedings in German courts, which would not only ruin him financially, but blow the cover he had dedicated years and years to creating in Africa (p.378).

Pasha didn’t recover from his fall for months, till the end of January 1890 but he did not return to Europe. He found employment with the Germans who were Britain’s fiercest rivals in East Africa, but his hopes of claiming Buganda for Germany and being appointed its governor were dashed by the careful arrangements of the 1890 Anglo-German Agreement. Pasha fell out with his German employers and set out for the interior on a mission of his own which has never been clarified.

In 1892, a hundred miles from the Congo, Pasha was beheaded by Arabs in alliance with a warlord called Kibongo. The Pasha’s sixty Sudanese followers were all shot. (p.380)

A. J. Mounteney-Jephson, Stanley’s most loyal lieutenant on the trip, made a different calculation, estimating that they set out on the lower Congo with 708 people of whom only 210 survived (p.381). The numbers are variable because extra porters were hired all along the route, and the number of camp followers (wives and children) fluctuated. But the main point is clear. Hundreds and hundreds of natives and over half the white men who started on the expedition, perished, and for what?

The Emin Pasha relief expedition turned out to be the last of its kind, run by a freelance explorer, funded by a private committee. The era of freelance exploration had come to an end and from this point onwards, expeditions were to be funded and managed by the government departments which were taking over all aspects of colonial administration.

Stanley with the officers of the Advance Column, safely back in Cairo in 1890. From left  to right, Dr Thomas Heazle Parke, Robert H. Nelson, Henry M. Stanley, William G. Stairs, and Arthur J. M. Jephson

Marriage and frustration

Jeal gives detailed accounts of Stanley’s many attempts to find a bride. Obviously his prospects changed overnight when he became super well-known as the hero who had found and supplied Dr Livingstone, a fame boosted by swift publication of his bestselling account, How I Found Livingstone (1871).

It is interesting to read about the rather cold-blooded practicality with which Stanley and his friends set about trying to find an eligible partner for him (p.300). It is pretty clear that the best candidate would have been May French Sheldon, an interesting character in her own right. Born and bred in America, May married a banker and developed as a journalist, essayist and novelist. She and husband Eli moved to London, where she corresponded with and then met Stanley who she found fascinating and inspiring. According to Jeal, May and her husband enjoyed an ‘open marriage’, something she informed Stanley about, and they were much in each other’s company.

However, Stanley wanted a wife and children, not a mistress and so, ultimately, May didn’t work out. This was a shame as she continued to worship him and, after Eli died in 1890, she herself undertook several expeditions to Africa, travelling up the Congo (funded and directed by Leopold’s people who gained good publicity out of her) and, on another trip, travelling from Mombassa to Mount Kilimanjaro unaccompanied by any other white person (p.385). She wrote up her travels and undertook lecture tours, becoming well known and was one of the first women to be made a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. In other words, she was right up Stanley’s street, and it would have been a match made in heaven

But instead Stanley was hooked by Dorothy ‘Dolly’ Tennant, scion of a rich family, a socialite and reasonably well known artist, exhibiting at the Royal Academy. Tennant came from a rich, well connected family, a family friend was the Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone. Dolly appears in the narrative on page 300 and then recurrently till the end of the book.

Dolly’s father, Charles Tennant, a lawyer and politician, was 58 when Dolly was born and died when she was 18. For years after his death she kept a diary in which she started each entry ‘Dear father’. With transparent psychology, she was attracted to father figures, men 10 or 20 years older than her, of high status, wealthy and married. She and Stanley became involved soon after he’d been invited to a dinner party at her family’s swanky London house in Richmond Terrace (June 25 1885), exchanging letters and love tokens.

Dorothy Tennant who married Stanley in 1890, painted by George Frederic Watts

However, Dolly was calculating. Jeal shows us how she spent most of the three years that Stanley was away on the gruesome Emin Pasha expedition (1886 to 1889), carrying on an impassioned (though presumably platonic) affair with Sir Alfred Comyn Lyall, Privy Councillor, member of the Council of the Secretary of State for India, a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge and, like most of Dolly’s crushes, twenty years older than her and married. There is no doubt she was in love with him. But, eventually, his detachment, his gloomy personality, and his married status forced her to acknowledge that he was never going to marry her.

Instead, as news arrived back in London that Stanley had reached Zanzibar, and as his fame exploded off the scale, she was happy to revive her correspondence with him and began telling all her friends that she had always had an understanding with the world famous explorer. Stanley, for his part, was naive, inexperienced, all too used to being rejected by the women he wooed, and so was bowled over when this beautiful, clever, rich and well connected young woman agreed to become engaged.

It was a massive, almost a state wedding. They were married in Westminster Abbey to which the blushing bride drove in a closed carriage along Whitehall through cheering crowds (p.400). The bishop of Ripon conducted the service, the signing of the register was witnessed by Gladstone and the two society painters, Millais and Leighton. What more could a girl wish for?

It took a while for them to realise that they were total opposites: she loved living in London, lived for socialising, loved being the centre of attention at high society parties, was perfectly at home with the very cream of London society, Prime Minsters and so on. Stanley was the extreme opposite, self consciously aware of his lower class origin, hating publicity and attention, preferring to be left alone to think and ponder. Stanley records the moment he realised it, after one of their first arguments because he had asked her to leave him alone for just a few hours to write his next book and she couldn’t understand why he wanted to be apart from her and burst into tears.

‘It struck me that is married life was to be a conflict of this nature, between marital duty and that which one owes to the public, there will be little happiness in future. The utter hopelessness of compatibility between her ideas and mine [was] revealed to me so suddenly that I was speechless for a time…’ (Stanley in his diary entry 4 September 1890, quoted page 403)

This caused much conflict until Stanley eventually bought a country house in Pirbright, Surrey, which he devoted himself to doing up and landscaping.

In 1885 Stanley had hoped that Leopold would invite him to become Governor of the new Congo state he was carving out. A large part of the evidence for Stanley’s lack of complicity in Leopold’s crimes of the 1890s is that Leopold never seriously considered this. He realised that Stanley was too fond of Africans and standing up for their rights to be the kind of obedient servant he (Leopold) was looking for. Then came the opportunity of the Emin Pasha expedition and Stanley was totally absorbed in that through till late 1889, then got married in 1890.

When he’d returned from that trip, an exhausted man, Stanley had hoped for several years that he might be asked by the British government to become a governor of the new colonies being legally defined, mapped and established across Africa. His good friend Sir William Mackinnon had been lobbying the government for years to carve out a legally defined British colony in Buganda and Kenya in order to compete against and contain the aggressive colonisation of the area by Germany, to finally stamp out the slave trade and to open the area for British trade.

In December 1892 Mackinnon, by now an old and ailing man, made a final offer of the governorship of the region to Stanley. To his everlasting disappointment, Dolly persuaded Stanley to turn down the offer, saying she couldn’t be parted from him, he was too old and ill, and so on. Instead she strongarmed him into standing for parliament, so he would become more like… her father, the politician. Stanley campaigned for and narrowly lost the election to become Liberal MP for Lambeth North, hating every minute of it, the public scrutiny, the big meetings, the heckling. In July 1895 there was another general election, Dolly again forced Stanley to stand, and he was elected Liberal Unionist MP for Lambeth, serving from 1895 to 1900. He hated it. For a man used to the widest, openest spaces in Africa, being cooped up for 14 hours a day in a badly ventilated, stuffy chamber listening to pontificating windbags, was his idea of hell.

It is heartening to report that the final years of Stanley’s life were made bright and happy after he adopted the six month son of one of his many distant Welsh relatives. The boy was brought to Pirbright and named Denzil and, as Stanley grew older and suffered a series of strokes, the small boy was to become the light of his life. He died in his bed at Pirbright on 10 May 1904, aged 63. Having read this long, thoroughly researched, ultra-detailed, and convincingly argued biography, I’m astonished he managed to last that long. What a life!


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Reflections on The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm (1987)

Critique of Hobsbawm’s Marxisant approach

In the third of his mighty trilogy of histories of the long nineteenth century, The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914, as in its two predecessors, Hobsbawm makes no attempt to hide his strongly Marxist point of view. Every page shouts his contempt for the era’s ‘bourgeois’ men of business, its ‘capitalists’ and bankers, the despicable ‘liberal’ thinkers of the period and so on. From time to time his contempt for the bourgeoisie rises to the level of actual abuse.

The most that can be said of American capitalists is that some of them earned money so fast and in such astronomic quantities that they were forcibly brought up against the fact that mere accumulation in itself is not an adequate aim in life for human beings, even bourgeois ones. (p.186)

Replace that final phrase with ‘even Jewish ones’ or ‘even Muslim ones’ or ‘even black ones’ to get the full sense of how deliberately insulting it is intended to be and how unacceptable his invective would be if applied to any other group of people.

Hobsbawm loses no opportunity to quote Marx (who died in 1883, saddened by the failure of his communist millennium to arrive) or Lenin’s views on late capitalism and imperialism (Lenin published his first political work in 1893), and he loses absolutely no opportunity to say ‘bourgeoisie bourgeoisie bourgeoisie’ scores of times on every page till the reader is sick of the sight of the word.

Hobsbawm’s highly partisan and politicised approach has strengths and weaknesses.

Hobsbawm’s strengths

On the up side, using very simplistic binary oppositions like ‘the developed world’ and ‘the undeveloped world’, the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘proletariat’, helps him to make great sweeping generalisations which give you the impression you are gaining secret access to the engine room of history. If you ignore the complexity of the histories and very different cultures of individual nations such as America, Britain, France and Germany, and lump them altogether as ‘the West’, then you can bring out the broad-brush historical and economic developments of the era, grouping together all the developments in science, chemistry, physics, technology, industry and consumer products into great blocks, into titanic trends and developments.

This gives the reader a tremendously powerful sense of bestriding the world, taking part in global trends and huge international developments. Just as in The Age of Capitalism, the first half or so of the book is thrilling. It makes you feel like you understand for the first time the titanic historical forces directing world history, and it’s this combination of factual (there are lots of facts and figures about industrial production) and imaginative excitement which garnered the trilogy so many positive reviews.

Hobsbawm’s obsession with capitalism’s contradictions

Hobsbawm makes obeisance to the Marxist convention that ‘bourgeois’ ideology was riddled with ‘contradictions’. The most obvious one was the contradiction between the wish of national politicians to define and delimit their nations and the desire of ‘bourgeois’ businessmen to ignore all boundaries and trade and invest wherever they wanted around the globe (p.40).

Another ‘contradiction’ was the way the spread of ‘Western ideology’ i.e. education and values, to developing countries, or at least to the elites within European colonies, often led to the creation of the very Western-educated elites who then helped to overthrow it (he gives the London-trained lawyer Gandhi as the classic example, p.77, though he could as easily have mentioned Jawaharlal Nehru, educated at Cambridge, trained at London’s Inner Temple as a barrister).

Another ‘contradiction’ was the between the way the mid-century ‘bourgeois’ industrial and economic triumph rested on a mechanical view of the universe, the mechanical laws of physics and heat and chemistry underpinning the great technological advances of the later nineteenth century. Hobsbawm then delights in the way that, at the end of the century, this entire mechanistic worldview was overturned in a welter of discoveries, including Einstein’s theory of relativity, the problematic nature of the sub-atomic world which gave rise to quantum physics, and deep discoveries about the bewildering non-rational basis of mathematics.

These are just some of the developments Hobsbawm defines as ‘contradictions’ with the aim of proving that Marx’s predictions that capitalism contained within itself deep structural contradictions which would undermine it and lead inevitably to its downfall.

Why Hobsbawm was wrong

Except that Marx was wrong and Hobsbawm is wrong. His continual mentioning Marx, quoting Lenin, harking back to the high hopes of the revolutionaries of 1848, invoking the memory of the Commune (redefined, in good Marxist style, as a heroic rising of the downtrodden working classes, rather than the internecine bloodbath that it actually was), his continual harking forward to the Bolshevik revolution as somehow the climax of all the trends he describes, his insistence that we, he and his readers, all now (in the mid-1980s when he wrote this book) still live in the forbidding shadow of the Russian revolution, still haunted by the spectre of communist revolution — every aspect of his attitude and approach now seems dated and irrelevant.

Now, in 2021, it is 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites revealed:

  1. Their complete failure to build an economic and social system which could be a serious alternative to ‘capitalism’.
  2. The extraordinary extent to which communist regimes had to surveil, monitor and police every aspect of their populations’ behaviour, speech and thoughts, in order to prevent them relapsing into the ways of human nature – the prison camps, the psychiatric wards, the secret police. Look at China today, with its censorship of the internet and its hounding of dissidents, its suppression of Falun Gong and the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang.

Seen from our contemporary perspective, Hobsbawm tendentious habit of naming every clash in policies, every development in cultural thinking as some kind of seismic ‘contradiction’ which will bring global capitalism tumbling down, looks like what it is, a biased obeisance to Marxist ideas which have long ago proved to be untrue.

The misleading use of terms like ‘bourgeois’

To some extent his attitude is based on one particular logical or rhetorical trick which can be proved to be false.

In the later chapters of the book, about the arts, the hard and social sciences, Hobsbawm repeatedly claims that this or that aspect of ‘bourgeois ideology’ of the mid-nineteenth century came under strain, suffered insoluble contradictions, underwent a crisis, and collapsed.

I think this is the crux of the massive mistake he makes. It consists of several steps:

  1. identifying every element of mid-nineteenth century political and cultural theory as some universal thing called ‘bourgeois’
  2. identifying this ‘bourgeoisie’ as the central and necessary figure of the capitalist system
  3. and then claiming that, because in the last few decades of the nineteenth century this ‘bourgeois’ ideology came under strain and in many ways collapsed, that therefore this shows that capitalism itself, as a system, must come under strain caused by its internal contradictions and therefore must collapse

Surely anyone can see the logical error here. All you have to do is stop insistently repeating that mid-nineteenth century ideology was identical with some timeless ‘bourgeois’ ideology which necessarily and uniquely underpins all capitalism, and simply relabel it ‘mid-nineteenth century ideology’, and then all your sentences stop being so apocalyptic.

Instead of saying ‘bourgeois ideology was stricken by crisis’ as if The Great Revolution is at hand, all you need say is ‘mid-nineteenth century political and social beliefs underwent a period of rapid change at the end of the century’ and the portentous sense of impending doom hovering over the entire system vanishes in a puff of smoke – and you are left just describing a fairly banal historical process, namely that society’s ideas and beliefs change over time, sometimes in abrupt reversals resulting from new discoveries, sometimes as slow evolutionary adaptations to changing social circumstances.

Put another way, Hobsbawm identifies mid-nineteenth century liberal ideology as if it is the one and only shape capitalist thinking can possibly take and so excitedly proclaims that, by the end of the century, because mid-nineteenth century ‘bourgeois’ beliefs were quite visibly fraying and collapsing, therefore capitalism would collapse too.

But quite obviously the ‘capitalist system’ has survived all the ‘contradictions’ and ‘crises’ Hobsbawm attributes to it and many more. It is still going strong, very strong, well over a century after the period which Hobsbawm is describing and when, he implies, it was all but on its last knees.

In fact the basic idea of manufacturing products cheap and selling them for as much profit as you can, screwing the workers who make them and keeping the profits to a) enjoy yourself or b) invest in other business ventures, is probably more widespread than ever before in human history, seeing how it’s been taken up so enthusiastically in post-communist Russia but especially across hyper-modernising China.

In other words, Hobsbawm’s use of Marxist terms like ‘bourgeois’ and ‘proletarian’ may have a certain explanatory power for the era he’s describing, but after a certain point they are too simplistic and don’t describe or analyse the actual complexity of even one of the societies he describes, let alone the entire world.

At some point (which you can almost measure in Hobsbawm’s texts) they cease to be explanatory and become obfuscatory, hiding the differences which separate America, Britain and Germany much more than unite them. Use of the terms simply indicate that you have entered a certain worldview.

Imagine a Christian historian identifying mid-nineteenth century ideology as the one and only expression of ‘Christian’ ideology, an ideology which divided the population into ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’, into the ‘saved’ and the ‘damned’. Imagine this historian went on to describe how the widespread ‘crisis’ in Christian belief at the end of the century indicated that the entire world was passing out of the phase of Christian belief and into infidel unbelief.

If you read something like that you would immediately know you are inside the particular worldview of an author, something which clearly means a lot to them, might shed light on some aspects of the period – for example trends in religious belief – but which in no way is the interpretation of world history.

a) Plenty of other interpretations are available, and b) despite the widespread laments that Christianity was dying out in the later nineteenth century, contrary to all their pessimism, Christianity now has more adherents worldwide than ever before in human history. And ditto capitalism.

The dominance of the key terms Hobsbawm deploys with such monotonous obsessiveness (capitalism, bourgeoisie, proletariat, liberal ideology) don’t prove anything except that you have entered the worldview of a particular author.

The system with the real contradictions, contradictions between a) its utopian claims for equality and the reality of a hierarchical society which privileged party membership, b) between its promises to outproduce the West and the reality of permanent shortages of consumer goods and even food, c) between its rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and the reality of the harsh repression of any kind of political or artistic unorthodoxy – was communism, whose last pitiful remnants lie rusting in a thousand statue parks across Russia and Eastern Europe.

The fundamental sleight of hand in Hobsbawm’s argument

Because Hobsbawm identifies the mid-nineteenth century worldview with the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘bourgeoisie’ as the indispensable foundation of ‘capitalism’, he tries to pull off the conjuring trick of claiming that, since the mid-nineteenth century worldview drastically changed in all kinds of ways in the last decade of the century, these change invalidate the ‘bourgeoisie’, and that this, in turn, invalidates ‘capitalism’. Proves it is wrong and doomed to collapse.

You can see how this is just a three-card trick which moves vague and indefinable words around on the table at speed to bamboozle the impressionable. For despite the trials and tribulations of the century of extremes which followed, ‘capitalism’ in various forms appears to have triumphed around almost the entire world, and the materialistic, conventional, liberal ‘bourgeoisie’ which Hobsbawm so despises… appears still to be very much with us, despite all Hobsbawm’s protestations about its terminal crises and death throes and contradictions and collapse.

Victimology tends to tyranny

To anyone familiar with the history of communist Russia, communist China and communist Eastern Europe, there is something unnerving and, eventually, worrying about Hobsbawm’s very broad-brush division of the entire world into victims and oppressors.

The first half of the twentieth century was the era of totalitarian governments seeking to gain total control over every aspect of their populations and mould them into better humans in a better society. The first thing all these regimes did was establish goodies and baddies, and rouse the population to be on perpetual guard against the enemy in whatever guise – ‘the bourgeoisie’, the ‘kulaks’, ‘capitalist roaders’, ‘reactionary elements’, ‘the Jews’, and so on.

Dividing the entire huge world and eight billion people into simple binaries like ‘oppressors’ and ‘victims’, ‘bourgeoisie’ and ‘workers’, ‘exploiters’ and ‘exploited’, ‘white’ masters and ‘black’ victims, is worryingly reminiscent of the simplistic, binary thinking which the twentieth century showed leads to genocides and mass killing.

Hobsbawm criticises the nationalist parties of the late-nineteenth century for dividing up populations into citizens and outsiders, members of the Volk or aliens, a process of which the Jews were notable victims. And yet he enacts the very same binary oppositioning, the same outsidering of a (large) group of society, by objectifying and insulting the ‘bourgeoisie’ at every opportunity.

It’s the same old mental slum: if only we could get rid of the gypsies / homos / lefties / commies / bourgeoisie / capitalists / Catholics / Protestants / Armenians / Jews / Croats / Serbs / Tutsis / Hutus / men / whites / blacks / immigrants / refugees, then society would be alright. I call it ‘If-only-ism’.

If capitalism and imperialism were inevitable, how can anyone be guilty?

In Age of Capital Hobsbawm describes how the industrial revolution amounted to a lucky fluke, a coming together of half a dozen circumstances (of which the most important was, in his view, Britain’s command of the waves and extensive trading network between colonies) and this helps you realise that some people were able to seize the opportunity and exploit it and become masters of small firms and then of factories etc. Clever, quick, resourceful or well-placed men leapt to take advantage of new opportunities. Any history of the industrial revolution names them and gives biographies of individuals central to the series of inventions or who then set up successful firms to exploit them.

However, the tendency of Hobsbawm’s very high-level Marxist approach, his sweeping surveys which pull together evidence from Austria, or France, from north Italy or New York, is, paradoxically, to remove all sense of agency from the humans involved. Hobsbawm makes it seem almost inevitable that the first industrial revolution (textiles) would give rise to a second (iron and coal) which in turn would give rise to a third (steel, organic chemistry, electrics, oil).

And he makes it seem inevitable that, once the world was fully mapped and explored, then the other ‘western powers’ which by 1890 had more or less caught up with Britain in terms of industrialisation, would join the competition to seize territories which contained valuable minerals or exotic produce (tea, coffee, bananas). That an acceleration of imperial rivalry was inevitable.

But if it had to pan out this way, how can you blame anyone? If, viewed from this lofty godlike perspective, it was inevitable that industrialisation broke out somewhere, that it would spread to all similar regions and states, that the now numerous industrial nations would find themselves in competition for the basic resources (food) and more arcane resources (rubber, oil, rare metals) required to drive the next stage of industrial development – can you blame them?

You could call it Hobsbawm’s paradox, or Hobsbawm’s Choice. The more inevitable you make the entire process sound, the less reason you have to be so cross at the ‘bourgeoisie’.

The reality is that you can, of course, hold the western nations accountable for their actions, but only if you descend to a lower level of historical discourse than Hobsbawm’s. Only if you begin to look at specific actions of specific governments and specific men in specific times and places an you begin to make assessments and apportion praise or blame.

Responsibility and guilt can’t really exist at the level Hobsbawm is operating on because he goes out of his way to avoid mentioning individuals (with only a few exceptions; Bismarck’s name crops up more than any other politician of the period) and instead emphasises that it all unfolded according to almost unavoidable historical laws, implicit in the logic of industrial development.

If humans couldn’t avoid it, then they can’t very well be blamed for it.

In light of Hobsbawm’s theory, is equality possible?

The same set of facts give rise to a parallel thought, which dogged me throughout reading this book, which is — if what Hobsbawm says is true, if industrial and technological developments tend to be restricted to just a handful of certain nations which have acquired the technology and capital resources to acquire ‘liftoff’ to industrialisation, and if, within those nations, the benefits of industrialisation accrue overwhelming to a small proportion of the population; and if this process is so stereotyped and inevitable and unstoppable — then, well… is it even possible to be fair? Is it possible to achieve anything like ‘equality’? Surely the entire trend of the history Hobsbawm describes with so much verve suggests not.

Putting aside the issue of fairness in one nation aside in order to adopt Hobsbawm’s global perspective, he often repeats the formula that countries in the ‘undeveloped’ or ‘developing’ or ‘Third World’ (whatever you want to call it) were forced by the demands of consumer capitalism or The Market to turn themselves into providers of raw materials or a handful of saleable commodities – after all, this was era which saw the birth of the banana republic. But, I thought as I ploughed through the book… what was the alternative?

Could undeveloped nations have turned their backs on ‘international capitalism’ and continued as agrarian peasant nations, or resisted the western imperative to become ‘nations’ at all and remained general territories ruled by congeries of local sheikhs or tribal elders or whatever?

At what stage would it have been possible to divert the general trend of colonial takeover of the developing world? How would it have happened? Which British leader would have stood up and said, ‘This is wrong; we renounce all our colonies and grant them independence today?’ in the1870s or 1880s or 1890s? What would have happened to the sub-continent or all those bits of Africa which Britain administered if Britain had simply packed up and left them in 1885?

As to all the wealth accumulating in Britain, among its sizeable cohort of ship-owners, traders, factory owners, bankers, stockbrokers and what not. On what basis would you have taken their wealth away, and how much? Half? All of it and shot them, as in Bolshevik Russia?

Having seized the wealth of the entire ‘bourgeoisie’, how would you then have redistributed it to the bedouin in the desert or the native peoples of Australia or the Amazon, to the workers on the rubber plantations, in the tin and gold mines, in the sugar fields, to squabbling tribes in central Africa? How could that have been done without a vast centralised redistribution system? Without, in fact, precisely the centralising, bureaucratic tendencies of the very capitalist system Hobsbawm was criticising?

And who would administer such a thing? Having worked in the civil service for over a decade I can tell you it would take hordes of consultants, program managers, project managers and so on, who would probably be recruited from the host country and make a packet out of the process?

And when was all this meant to happen? When, would you say, the awareness of the wrongs of the empire, or the wrongs done to the ‘undeveloped world’ became widespread enough to allow such policies to be enacted in a democracy where the government has to persuade the majority of the people to go along with its policies? In the 1860s, 70s, 80s?

Live Aid was held in 1985, just as Hobsbawm was writing this book, and which I imagine brought the issue of Third World poverty and famine to the attention of even the dimmest members of the population. But did that global event abolish poverty, did it end inequality and injustice in in the Third World? No, otherwise there would have been no need for the Live 8 concerts and related charity efforts 30 years later, in 2005. Or the ongoing efforts of all the industrialised nations to send hundreds of millions of dollars of support to the Third World every year (hence the furore surrounding the UK government cutting back on its foreign aid budget this year.) Not to mention the continuous work of thousands of charities all across the ‘developing world’.

When you look at the scale of activity and the amounts of money which have been sent to developing countries since the Second World War, it makes you wonder how much would be enough? Should every citizen of every industrialised nation give, say, half their annual earnings to people in the Third World? To which people? In which countries? To India, which has invested tens of billions in a space program? To China, which is carrying out semi-genocidal policy of incarceration and mass sterilisation in its Xinjiang province? Do we need to take money from the British public to give it to Narendra Modi or Xi Jinping? Who would manage that redistribution program, for whatever civil servants and consultants you hired to make it work would earn much, much more than the recipients of the aid.

Student excitement, adult disillusion with Hobsbawm

When I was a student, reading this trilogy educated me about the broad industrial, economic and social forces which created and drove forward the industrial revolution in the Western world throughout the nineteenth century, doing so in thrilling style, and for that I am very grateful. Hobsbawm’s books highlighted the way that, through the 1850s and 1860s, capitalism created an ever-richer class of ‘owners’ set against a rapidly growing number of impoverished workers; how the industrial and financial techniques pioneered in Britain spread to other Western nations; how the industrial system evolved in the 1880s and 1890s into a) a booming consumer society in the West and b) the consolidation of a system of colonial exploitation around the world.

I had never had the broad trends of history explained so clearly and powerfully and excitingly. It was a memorable experience.

But rereading the books 40 years later, I am now painfully aware that the simplistic Marxist concepts Hobsbawm uses to analyse his period may certainly help to elucidate it, but at the same time highlight their own ineffectiveness.

The confidence that a mass working class movement which will rise up to overthrow the inequalities of the West and liberate the developing world, that this great liberation is just around the corner – which is implicit in his numerous references to 1848 and Marx and the Commune and Lenin – and that all it needs is a few more books and pamphlets to spark it off….goes beyond boring to become sad. Although the historical facts he describes remain as relevant as ever, the entire ideology the books are drenched in feels terribly out of date.

Democracy not the blessing it is cracked up to be

In chapter 4 Hobsbawm discusses the politics of democracy. Throughout he takes it for granted that extending the franchise to all adults would result in the revolutionary change he supports. He starts his discussion by referencing the powerful German Social Democratic Party (founded back in 1863) and the British Labour Party (founded in 1900) and their campaigns for universal suffrage, as if giving the vote to ‘the working class’ would immediately lead to a social revolution, the end of inequality and exploitation.

Only in the chapters that follow does he slowly concede that new mass electorates also helped to create new mass, populist parties and that many of these catered not to the left at all, but to right-wing nationalist ideas of blood and Volk. For example, the notorious Karl Luger, mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910, whose Christian Social Party espoused populist and antisemitic politics which are sometimes viewed as a model for Adolf Hitler’s Nazism.

In fact it had already been shown that universal male suffrage not only didn’t lead to socialist revolution but the exact opposite, when, in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution which overthrew the French monarchy, the French granted universal male suffrage and held a presidential election in which the opera bouffe candidate, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, promptly won with 74% of the entire male adult vote, and then went on to win the plebiscite held after his 1851 anti-leftist coup with 76%.

So any educated person knew in the 1850s that extending the franchise did not, in and of itself, lead to red revolution. Often the opposite. (This is a point picked up in Richard Shannon’s book The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 which quotes umpteen later Victorian politicians and commentators arguing against extending the franchise precisely because they’d seen what it led to in France, namely the election of a repressive, right wing autocrat.)

Hobsbawm’s excited description of the way the ‘scary’ working class were ‘threatening’ bourgeois hegemony, were on the brink of ‘seizing power’ and righting the world’s wrongs, underplays the extent to which universal suffrage led:

  1. directly to the rise of populist nationalist anti-left wing governments
  2. and to the fragmentation of the left into ‘reformists’, prepared to compromise their radical principles and ally with liberal parties in order to get into parliament, and the die-hards who held out for radical social change

In other words, extending the franchise led to the exact opposite of what Hobsbawm hopes. Something borne out after the Great War, when the franchise was drastically extended to almost all adults in most European countries and the majority of European governments promptly became either right-wing or out-and-out dictatorships. Mussolini won the 1924 Italian general election; Hitler won the largest share of the vote in the Weimar Republic’s last election. Or Hungary:

In January 1920, Hungarian men and women cast the first secret ballots in the country’s political history and elected a large counterrevolutionary and agrarian majority to a unicameral parliament. (Wikipedia)

Switching from Hobsbawm altogether to the present day, 2021, any reader of the English left-liberal English press must be struck how, since the Brexit vote, it has stopped being a taboo subject to suggest that quite possibly a large proportion of the British electorate is thick and uneducated (terms you frequently meet in the Guardian newspaper). You can nowadays read plenty of ‘progressive’ commentators pointing out that the great British electorate was persuaded, in voting for Brexit (2016) and Boris (2019), to vote for populist right-wing demagoguery and against their own best interests as working people. I have read so many commentators pointing out that it is the very conservative working class communities who voted for Brexit who are most likely going to suffer the prolonged consequences of economic dislocation and decline.

In other words, right now in 2021, you can read representatives of the left openly stating that universal franchise, one person one vote, not only doesn’t lead to the socialist paradise Hobsbawm implies it will, but the opposite – rule by right-wing populists.

As far as I can remember, thoughts like this would have been utterly taboo in the 1980s, or have immediately identified you as a right-wing conservative. But now I read comments like this every day in the Guardian or New Statesman.

So – this is the recent experience and current political discourse I bring to reading Hobsbawm’s chapter about democracy and which makes me think his assumption, his faith, his Marxist belief, that simply expanding the franchise to all adults would of itself bring about social revolution and justice and equality is too simplistic.

  • It doesn’t correlate with the historical fact that, as soon as the franchises of most European nations had been radically expanded (after the Great War), lots of them became very right-wing.
  • It doesn’t speak to our present situation where, it’s true that no-one is openly suggesting restricting the franchise, but many progressives are questioning whether the universal franchise produces the optimum results for a nation and its working class. Trump. Brexit.

The world is not as we would like it to be.

My opposition to Hobsbawm’s teleology

I am a Darwinian materialist. I believe there is no God and therefore no purpose or direction to human lives or events. There is no plan, divine or otherwise. Shit happens, people try to cope. Obviously shit happens within a complex web of frameworks and structures which we have inherited, it takes a lot of effort to disentangle and understand what is going on, or what we think is going on, and sometimes it may happen in ways some of which we can broadly predict. But ‘events, dear boy, events’ are the determining feature in human affairs. Take Afghanistan this past week. Who knew? Who expected such a sudden collapse?

This isn’t a very profound analysis but my aim is to contrast my preference for a theory of the unpredictable and chaotic nature of human affairs with Hobsbawm’s profound belief in Marxist teleology, meaning the very nineteenth century, rationalist, scientistic belief that there are laws of history and that human societies obey them and that they can be predicted and harnessed.

Teleology: the doctrine of design and purpose in the material world.

Teleology is the belief that if you shave away all the unfortunate details of history, and the peculiarities of culture, and the impact of charismatic individuals, in fact if you pare away enough of what makes people people and societies societies, you can drill down to Fundamental Laws of History. And that Karl Marx discovered them. And that these laws predict the coming collapse of capitalism and its replacement by a wonderful classless society. And that you, too, can be part of this future by joining the communist party today for the very reasonable online registration fee of just £12!

Anyway, the teleology (‘sense of direction, meaning or purpose’) which is a vital component of Marxism, the confidence in an inevitable advent of a future of justice and equality, which underpins every word Hobsbawm wrote, evaporated in 1991 and nothing has taken its place.

There will be no Revolution. The ‘capitalist system’ will not be overthrown. At most there will be pointless local revolts like the Arab Spring, revolts which, more than likely, end up with regimes more repressive or anarchic than the ones they overthrew (Syria, Libya, Egypt).

This sort of thing will occur repeatedly in countries which did not enjoy the early or middle benefits of the technological revolutions Hobsbawm describes, countries of the permanently developing world, which will always have largely peasant populations, which will always depend on the export of raw materials (oil being the obvious one), which will always have unstable political systems, liable to periodic upheavals.

The environmental perspective

If there is One Big Thing we do know about the future, it is something which isn’t mentioned anywhere in Hobsbawm’s book, which is that humanity is destroying the environments which support us.

My son is studying biology at university. He says it amounts to having world-leading experts explain the beauty and intricacy of various eco-systems in beautiful places around the planet – and then describing how we are destroying them.

As a result, my son thinks that human civilisation, in its present form, is doomed. Not because of global warming. But because we are killing the oceans, exterminating all the fish, destroying species diversity, wrecking agricultural land, using up all the fresh water, relying more on more on fragile monocultures, and generally devastating the complex web of ecosystems which make human existence possible.

Viewed from this perspective, human activity is, overall, fantastically destructive. And the massive ideological divide Hobsbawm makes between the tradition of the nineteenth century ‘bourgeoisie’, on the one hand, and the revolutionaries, Communards, Bolsheviks and communists he adulates, on the other, fades into insignificance.

We now know that polluting activity and environmental destruction were as bad or worse under communist regimes as they were under capitalist ones. It was the Soviet system which gave us Chernobyl and its extended cover-up. Capitalist ones are at least capable of reform in a way communist regimes turned out not to be. Green political movements are a feature of advanced ‘capitalist’ countries but were suppressed, along with every other form of deviance, under communist governments.

But then again, it really doesn’t matter from a global perspective. Looked at from the planet’s point of view, all human activity is destructive.

So this is why, looking at them from a really high-level perspective, as of aliens visiting earth and reviewing the last couple of centuries, these books no longer make me angry at the wicked ‘capitalist’ exploitation of its workers and entire colonial nations and the ‘heroic’ resistance of the proletariat and the exploited peoples of the colonial nations.

I just see a swarm of humans ruining their habitat and leading, inevitably, to their own downfall.

Hobsbawm’s style

Hobsbawm is very repetitive. He mentions bicycles and cars and so on representing new technologies at least three times. I swear he points out that imperialism was the result of increasing competition between the industrial nations at least half a dozen times. He tells us that a number of Germany’s most eminent revolutionaries came from Russia, namely Rosa Luxemburg, at least four times. He repeats President Porfirio Diaz’s famous lament, ‘Poor Mexico! So far from God, so close to the United States’ twice. He tells us twice that western governments were keen to invest in medical research into tropical fevers solely because the results promised to help their officers and administrators survive longer in colonial outposts several times. He repeatedly tells us that Bismarck was the master of maintaining peace between the powers (pp.312 and 318).

The impression this gives is of rambling, repetitive and circular arguments instead of linear, logical ones.

Hobsbawm’s discussions are often very gaseous in the sense that they go on at length, use lots of highbrow terminology, but at the end it’s hard to make out or remember what he’s said. The discussion of nationalism in Age of Capital was long and serious-sounding but I emerged at the end of it none the wiser. The long discussion of sociology in chapter 11 of this book left me none the wiser about sociology except for Hobsbawm’s weird suggestion that, as a social science, it was founded and encouraged in order to protect society against Marxism and revolution. Really?

In a similar spirit, although he uses the word ‘bourgeoisie’ intensively throughout both books, I emerged with no clearer sense of what ‘bourgeoisie’ really means than I went in with. He himself admits it to be a notoriously difficult word to define and then more or less fails to define it.

On a more serious level I didn’t understand his discussion of nationalism in Age of Capital or his discussion of the increasing democratisation in the 1890s in this volume, because they were vague and waffly. It seemed to me that as soon as he left his home turf of economic development, his ideas become foggy and repetitive.

And sometimes he comes over as a hilariously out of touch old buffer:

By 1914 the more unshackled youth in the western big cities and resorts was already familiar with sexually provocative rhythmic dances of dubious but exotic origin (the Argentinian tango, the syncopated steps of American blacks). (p.204)

‘The syncopated steps of American blacks’. No wonder American capitalism was doomed to collapse.

Overall conclusion

Hobsbawm’s books are thrilling because of their scope and range and the way he pulls together heterogenous material from around the world, presenting pages of awe-inspiring stats and facts, to paint a vivid, thrilling picture of a world moving through successive phases of industrialisation.

But he is eerily bereft of ideas. This comes over in the later chapters of both books in which he feels obligated, like so many historians before him, to write a chapter about The Arts. This is not his natural territory and the reader has to struggle through turgid pages of Hobsbawm dishing up absolutely conventional judgements (Van Gogh was an unrecognised genius; the arts and crafts movement was very influential), which are so lame and anodyne they are embarrassing.

I had noticed his penchant for commenting on everything using numbered points (‘The bourgeois century destabilised its periphery in two main ways…’; ‘Three major forces of resistance existed in China…’, ‘Three developments turned the alliance system into a time bomb…’, and many others). Eventually it dawned on me that he produces these nifty little sets of issues or causes or effects instead of having ideas. Lists beat insights.

Considering how fertile Marxist literary and art criticism has been in the twentieth century (cf György Lukács, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Frederick Jameson) it is very disappointing how flat and untheoretical and banal Hobsbawm’s comments about the arts in both books are. In these later sections of each book it is amazing how much he can write without really saying anything. He is a good example of someone who knows all the names and terminology and dates and styles and has absolutely nothing interesting to say about them.


Credit

The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm was published in 1975 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 1985 Abacus paperback.

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