The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950 – 1350 by Robert Bartlett (1993)

The sub-title is ‘Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950 – 1350’ and that is very much the central idea I take from this book – that before Europe embarked on its well-known colonial adventures from 1492 onwards, it had already experienced centuries of internal colonisation.

Another book I’ve recently read, Robert Fletcher’s The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity, 371-1386 AD, has prepared my mind for this idea, with its account of the millennium-long process whereby Christianity was spread across the ‘nations’ (such as they were) of Europe, to the pagan peoples and rulers of the fringes. The final part of that book makes it clear that, after the First Crusade (1095-99), as Christianity was spread along the Baltic and into the last bastions of paganism in Eastern Europe, the evangelising became much more violent. It no longer amounted to a much-venerated saint converting a bunch of open-mouthed peasants by healing a sick girl; it was now about armed bands of knights united in an ‘Order’ – the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, the Teutonic Order – who waged fierce wars of conquest into the East, forcibly converting the populations they conquered and building imperial castles to hold the territory they’d seized.

Charge of the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Lake Peipus, April 5, 1242

Charge of the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Lake Peipus, April 5, 1242

Europe had to colonise itself, before its rulers went on to violently colonise the rest of the world.

Bartlett’s book aims to make you see that a number of scattered events usually treated as separate entities in siloed national histories, were actually all part of One Really Big Pattern: the spread, by conquest, of a centrally organised, Latin, Catholic Christianised state ideology right across Europe, and that this diffusion came from the heart of the old Frankish empire, from the most technologically and ideologically advanced heart of Europe consisting of north-France, north-west Germany and south-east England (after it had been conquered by the Normans in the 1060s).

Thus:

  • The Norman invasion of Ireland in the 1170s was partly a crude seizure of land and resources, but also involved the imposition on Gaelic Christianity of the much more centrally organised Latin Roman version.
  • A hundred years later, Edward I’s conquest of Wales in the 1280s had a similar aim of imposing a strong, centralised, Latinate organisation onto a culture traditionally made of scores of petty princes.
  • The Scots had already undergone a European-style centralising ‘revolution’ under King David I (1124-1153) and so could muster more resources to resist Edward I’s imperial ambitions – but only at the expense of handing over large parts of southern Scotland to settlement by Normans (and Flemings).
  • This period also saw the Reconquista of Spain, the long effort to push the occupying Muslims out of the Iberian Peninsula, over the centuries from the reconquest of Toledo in 1085 to the recapture of Seville in 1248.
  • It was also the era of the Crusades (1095 to 1291), which imposed Latin, Catholic Christianity on formerly Orthodox territories in the Middle East.
  • Just before the First Crusade began, Norman troops under Roger I conquered the Kingdom of Sicily from the Muslims (complete by 1091).
  • En route to the Holy Land, King Richard I seized Cyprus from its Greek ruler in 1191, transferring it to Latin rule.
  • And the sack of Constantinople in 1204 led directly to the imposition of Latin, Catholic dioceses and bishops over much of the Byzantine Empire.

The same period saw the campaigns to Christianise the remote regions of northern and north-eastern Europe, now collectively referred to as the ‘Northern Crusades’. These included:

  • The Wendish Crusade (1147) against the Wends of north-east Germany and Poland.
  • The Crusade against the Livonians in the north-east Baltic in the 1190s.
  • The Teutonic Knights prolonged campaign to crush and convert the Prussians in the 1250s.
  • And a series of drawn-out campaigns against the pagan Duchy of Lithuania, the last stronghold of paganism in all Europe.

Moreover, this period also saw internal crusades to impose order and uniformity within Latin Christendom – most notoriously against the Cathars, a heretical sect which had followers across the South of France and which was brutally suppressed in the ‘Albigensian Crusade’ from 1209 to 1229 (named for the town of Albi, which was one of the heretical strongholds).

The Frankish expansion

The animation below shows the first 500 years of the spread of Christianity, the loss of the Middle east and Africa to the Muslims in the 700s and 800s, the Christian fightback – permanent in Spain, transient in the Levant – and then the abrupt worldwide explosion of Christianity commencing in 1500. It’s the first 1400 years or so we’re interested in, the fluctuations in and around the Mediterranean, and the period 950 to 1350 that Bartlett is particularly concerned with.

In a host of ways Bartlett identifies this expansion with the Franks, the Gothic tribe which seized Gaul from the Romans in the 500s and quickly established a centralised state which reached its geographical maximum under the legendary Charlemagne, king of the Franks from 768 to 814. I hadn’t realised that at its peak, Charlemagne’s empire was coterminous with Western Christendom (with the exception of the Christianised Anglo-Saxon kingdoms) as this map shows. It really was an awesome achievement.

Map of Europe around 800 AD

Map of Europe around 800 AD

William of Normandy who conquered Britain in 1066 was a descendant of the Frankish kings. Frankish aristocrats played key roles in all the conquests of the day, against the Moors in Spain and the Saracens in the Levant, in Sicily and Crete and Cyprus, and in the north pressing into Denmark, into Poland and along the Baltic towards Finland and Russia. Bartlett has a nifty diagram showing that by the late Middle Ages, 80% of Europe’s monarchs were descended from the Frankish royal family or Frankish nobles.

No surprise, then, that the word ‘Frank’ began to be used widely as a generic name for the conquerors and settlers all over Europe – the Byzantine Greeks called the incoming Latins ‘the Franks’; a settlement in Hungary was called ‘the village of the Franks’; the newly conquered peoples of Silesia and Moravia had to submit to ‘Frankish law’; Welsh chroniclers refer to incursions by ‘the Franci’; and Irish monks referred to the Anglo-Norman invaders as ‘the Franks’. Similarly, in the Middle East of the Crusader era, Muslim commentators, kings and peoples came to call all Westerners ‘the Franks’. So widespread and famous was this association, that Muslim traders took the name Faranga on their journeys through the Red Sea eastwards, spreading the term as far East as China, where, when westerners arrived hundreds of years later, they were identified as the long-rumoured Fo-lang-ki. (pp.104-105).

Questions and theories

All this prompts three questions:

  1. Why did Latin Christianity feel it had to convert the entire continent?
  2. Why did Latin Christianity feel it had to be so centralised; why did it feel so obliged to impose uniformity of ritual and language all across the Christian world?
  3. What gave Latin Christian culture its dynamism – the aggressive confidence which would spill out to the Canary Islands (conquered in the early 1400s), to the Caribbean (1490s), to Central America (1520s), along the coast of Africa (first settlements in Mozambique in 1500), to India and beyond?

1. The first of these questions is answered at length in Richard Fletcher’s book, which shows how the Great Commission in St Matthew’s Gospel (‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you‘) was interpreted by successive Church authorities to mean, first of all, gaining some converts among the rich in cities around the Roman Empire; then to convert all inhabitants of the cities; then, only slowly, to undertake the task of converting the rural peasants; and only then, in the 700s and 800s, the brave idea of venturing beyond the pale of Romanitas to try and convert pagans.

The second two questions are the ones Bartlett specifically addresses and he approaches them from different angles, examining various theories and sifting a wide range of evidence. I found two arguments particularly convincing:

2. The centralisation of the Catholic Church. This stems from the Gregorian Reforms, a series of measures instituted by Pope Gregory VII from around 1050 to 1080. They banned the purchase of clerical positions, enforced clerical celibacy, significantly extended Canon law to impose uniformity on all aspects of Catholic practice. As Wikipedia puts it, these reforms were based on Gregory’s

conviction that the Church was founded by God and entrusted with the task of embracing all mankind in a single society in which divine will is the only law; that, in his capacity as a divine institution, he is supreme over all human structures, especially the secular state; and that the pope, in his role as head of the Church under the Petrine Commission, is the vice-regent of God on earth, so that disobedience to him implies disobedience to God: or, in other words, a defection from Christianity.

This gathering of power by the papacy is generally thought to have reached its height under the papacy of Pope Innocent III (1198 to 1216). Innocent further extended Canon Law, upheld papal power over all secular rulers, using the Interdict to punish rulers he disagreed with (e.g. King John of England) and he was personally responsible for some of the violent campaigns we’ve listed: Innocent called for Christian crusades to be mounted against the Muslims in the Holy Land and the south of Spain, and against the Cathars in the South of France.

Making Christian belief and practice uniform was part and parcel of the extension of its power by a vigorously confident papacy, a vision of uniformity which echoed and reinforced the tendency of secular rulers to create larger ‘states’ in which they asserted increasingly centralised power and uniform laws.

3. As to the literal force behind the aggressive military confidence, Bartlett has a fascinating chapter about the technology of medieval war. Basically, the Franks had heavy war-horses, heavy body armour, the crossbow and a new design of impenetrable defensive castles and all of these were absent in the conquered territories, the Holy Land, southern Spain, Wales and Ireland, in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. These advanced military technologies gave the better-armed Franks victory – at least until their opponents managed to figure out and copy them for themselves. (The Crusades are a different case – fundamentally the Crusaders lost for lack of men and resources.)

But I was drawn to a subtler cause for this great expansion: in the 9th and 10th centuries the laws of inheritance were hazy and patrimonies and estates could be divided among a number of sons, daughters, cousins, uncles and so on. (One aspect of this is the way that Anglo-Saxon kings were chosen by acclamation, not rigid law; and this uncertainty explains the long English civil war following Henry I’s death between his daughter Matilda and her cousin Stephen of Blois, which lasted from 1135 to 1153.)

Thus, along with the imposition of clearer laws and rules within the Church went secular attempts in Frankish lands to regularise secular law, and one element of this was to enforce the previously haphazard law of primogeniture i.e. the eldest son inherits the entire estate. But this new rigour had unexpected consequences – it forced all the other male heirs to go off looking for land.

In a fascinating chapter Bartlett sketches the histories of several aristocratic Frankish families where one son inherited the father’s entire estate and left the other 3 or 4 or 5 well-armed, well-educated, ambitious sons literally homeless and landless. There was only one thing for it – to associate themselves with the nearest campaign of Christianisation and conquest. Thus the de Joinville family from the Champagne region of France spawned sons who fought and won lands in Ireland, in Africa and Syria. The descendants of Robert de Grandmenils from Normandy (d.1050) won lands in southern Italy and Sicily, served the Byzantine Emperor, joined the First Crusade, and ended up building castles in northern Wales.

So a newly rigorous application of the law of primogeniture provided the motive for forcing dispossessed aristocrats to go a-fighting – the newly authoritarian Catholic Church provided a justifying ideology for conquest in the name of uniformity and iron armour, heavy warhorses, the crossbow and castles provided the technology. Taken together these elements at least begin to explain the phenomenal success of the ‘Frankish expansion’.

Other aspects of medieval colonisation

These ideas are pretty clearly expressed in the first three chapters; the remaining nine chapters flesh them out with a host of details examining the impact of the Frankish expansion on every aspect of medieval life: the image of the conquerors as embodied in coins, statutes and charters; the division of time into primitive pagan ‘before’ and civilised Christian ‘after’; the propagandistic literature of conquest (in various romances and epics); the giving of new Latin place names which over-wrote the native names of the conquered – the Arabs, the Irish, the Slavs; the imposition of new Frankish laws and tax codes; the proliferation of New Towns with Western-based charters, and the creation of hundreds of new villages, laid out on logical grid patterns, especially in eastern Europe. (This reminded me of the passage in Marc Morris’s history of Edward I which describes Edward’s creation of New Model Towns on grid plans in Wales (Flint) but also England (Winchelsea)).

Bartlett presents the evidence for the widespread importation from Christian Germany of heavy, iron-tipped ploughs which were much more efficient at turning the soil than the lighter, wooden Slavic ploughs, and thus increased productivity in the new settlements (pp.148-152). This went hand-in-hand with a ‘cerealisation’ of agriculture, as woods were cleared and marshes drained to provide more ploughing land to grow wheat and barley, which in turn led to significant increases in population in the newly settled lands. (Although as with all things human this had unintended consequences, little understood at the time; which is that the pagan predecessors, though fewer in number, had a more balanced diet which included fruit and berries and honey from woodlands – the switch to a cereal-based monoculture increased production but probably led to unhealthier people. Analysis of corpses suggests there was a net loss of stature in humans over the period, with the average height decreasing by about 2 inches between the early and the High Middle Ages.)

Names became homogenised. The Normans imported ‘William’ and ‘Henry’ into the England of ‘Athelstan’ and ‘Aelfric’, and then into the Wales of ‘Llywelyn’ ‘Owain’ and the Ireland of ‘Connor’, ‘Cormac’ and ‘Fergus’. Bartlett shows how these essentially Frankish names also spread east replacing ‘Zbigniew’ and ‘Jarosław’, south into Sicily and even (to a lesser extent) into Spain.

In a move typical of Bartlett’s ability to shed fascinating light on the taken-for-granted, he shows how the centralisation and harmonisation of the Latin church led to the diffusion of a small number of generic saints names. Before about 1100 the churches of the various nations were dedicated to a very wide spectrum of saints named after local holy men in Irish, Welsh, Scots, Castilian, Navarrese, Italian, Greek, Germanic or Polish and so on. But the 1200s saw the rise of a continent-wide popularity for the core gospel names – Mary at the top of the table, followed by Christ (as in Christ Church or Corpus Christi) and then the names of the most popular disciples, John, Peter, Andrew.

The names of individual people as well as the names of their churches, along with many other cultural changes which he describes – all followed this process of homogenisation and Latinisation which Bartlett calls ‘the Europeanisation of Europe’ (chapter 11).

New worlds and the New World

Bartlett doesn’t have to emphasise it but the parallels are clear to see between the colonisation by violence and crusading Christianity of the peripheral areas of Europe in the 1000s to 1300s, and the conquest of the Americas in the 1500s and 1600s. It’s a mind-opening comparison, which works at multiple levels.

For example, many of the charters and decrees about the new European lands proclaimed them ’empty’ virgin land ready to be settled, despite the evidence of native populations living in well-developed (though non-Latin) settlements – just as publicists for the Americas and, later, Australia, would declare them ’empty’ of natives.

Even when there are obviously natives (Welsh, Scots, Muslims, Slavs) the official colonial medieval literature disparages the aboriginal inhabitants’ lack of literacy, of iron tools or weapons, of orthodox Christianity, of organised towns with advanced codes of law and so on.

‘They’ are in every way uncivilised; ‘we’ in every way deserve to take their land because only ‘we’ know how to make it productive and fertile.

Many of the other histories I’ve read describe the numerous medieval conquests in terms of battles, alliances, troops and armour and so on; Bartlett’s is the only one I know which goes on to explain in great detail that, once you’ve conquered your new territory – you need people to come and live in it. You have to persuade people from the old lands to risk making a long journey, so you have to advertise and give would-be settlers tax breaks and even cash incentives. Settlers in Ireland, the south of Spain, the Holy Land or Livonia were all told how much empty land they could have, were offered tax breaks for the first few years and then reduced taxes for decades after, and the lords and conquerors fell over themselves to give the new towns attractive charters and independent powers to determine their own laws and taxes.

All of these techniques would be copied by the conquistadors in Central America or the merchant adventurers who launched the first settlements in North America, or the colonial authorities desperate to fill the wide ’empty’ spaces of Australia or New Zealand. It is a mind-opening revelation to learn how all these techniques were pioneered within Europe itself and against fellow ‘Europeans’, centuries before the New World was discovered.

Conclusion

This a very persuasive book which mounts an impressive armoury of evidence – archaeological and ecological, in place names, people’s names, saints names, in cultural traditions, church records and epic poems, in the spread of monasteries and universities and charters and coinage – to force home its eye-opening central argument: that the more advanced, centrally organised parts of Europe (north-west France, north-west Germany and south-east England) (all ultimately owing their authority, technology and ideology to the Frankish empire of Charlemagne) succeeded in conquering and settling the rest of less advanced, less developed and non-Christian Europe with the aid of a panoply of technologies and ideologies, legal and cultural and physical weapons – a panoply which Europeans would then use to sail out and conquer huge tracts of the rest of the world.


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

A Most Wanted Man by John le Carré (2008)

Le Carré’s default prose setting is pompous, preening, self-dramatising grandiosity, heavy-handed jocosity, leaden jokes and facetious 1950s dialogue. These traits are to the fore in this novel the character of Tommy Brue, owner of Brue Frères, a private bank in Hamburg. Like other JLC leading men, Tommy is in thrall to the memory of his ‘legendary’ father, the bank’s founder, remembered via the old boy’s embarrassingly bad quotes and dimwit aperçus, which I assume we’re meant to take seriously.

‘Tommy, my son, arithmetic is the one part of our business that doesn’t lie.’ (p.27)

Really? In banking? Who knew?

‘Never trust a beautiful woman, Tommy. They’re a criminal class, the best there is.’ (p.42)

Rather than a suave banker, Brue père, like so many JLC characters, sounds like a 1950s spiv. And his lumpen, unfunny humour has, alas, rubbed off on his son.

It wasn’t bull markets, bear markets, hedge funds or derivatives. It was cock-up. It was the persistent, he would go so far as to say the permanent sound, not to put too fine an edge on it, of excrement hitting your proverbial fan. (p.30)

The text all too often presents this kind of elaborate facetiousness as howlingly funny, whereas it makes large stretches of le Carré’s later novels almost unreadable.

Another JLC technique / vice is to describe or build up a character by inventing an imaginary chorus of colleagues, fellow worker and associates to comment on him – the rumour mill, the office gossips, fans, devotees, the so-and-so-watchers – who are then made to comment and elaborate on the characters, as if they are pop stars or celebrities, topics of continual observation and amazement.

[Bachmann] cooled his heels after fathering a near-epic scandal of which only the sketchiest outlines had ever reached the gossip mill: excessive zeal, said the rumours… (p.58)

According to rumour they had given sex a try and declared it a disaster area. (p.67)

Related to the technique of making characters the centre of worlds of rumour, gossip and intrigue, is to describe characters, their qualities or rooms or possessions, as legendary, fabled and generally tremendously well-known.

The outsize mahogany bookcase that filled the whole of one wall was similarly the stuff of family legend… Had [Tommy’s father read all the books it contained?] Legend said not. (p.25)

Big Melik, as he was also known to his admiring neighbourhood… (p.1)

Edward Amadeus OBE had been a legend in his lifetime and was a legend still. (p.186)

What had happened to the rebel in her, to her fabled powers of argument and resistance so valued by her family? (p.244)

In the hands of a legendary woman researcher called Frau Zimmerman… ‘As with decoding, so with invisible transfers, the legendary Frau Zimmerman resumes in her schoolmarm’s South German. (pp.318, 320)

One of the saddest moments in his life had been standing before the bonfire in his garden in Vienna with his first wife Sue on one side of him and Georgie the other, watching the fabled Brue Frères card index go up in smoke. (p.401)

Günther Bachmann was a famous chancer and nothing was ever going to change that. (p.406)

‘A legend in his lifetime.’ Another element in the over-selling of the characters is when they or the narrator (interchangeably) use ‘our’ to refer to them – as if we’ve adopted them, as if we are all part of the same nice snug gang, as if the whole narrative is taking part among members of the sixth form of a pukka public school.

Nobody should be interested in Mr Findlay. Mr Findlay should be relegated to oblivion forthwith and forever, is what should happen to our Mr Findlay,’ she said, adopting a furious nursery-rhyme voice. (p.267)

… where Lisa and Maria, our in-house Arabists, were already sitting… (p.211)

As to our gallant president and managing director… (p.343)

… assigning his grandfather’s chair to Our Esteemed Interpreter… (p.387)

Even more minor characters, who don’t happen to be legends in their lifetimes, still often merit facetious adjectives, indicative of the knowing mockery of superior public school banter.

… followed by an hour talking to his revered solicitor in Glasgow… (p.335)

And yet another way in which the whole tone of these later novels is over the top – over-egging the characters and overselling the action – is its addiction to italics, just to ram home the vehemence of the characters’ feelings and the importance of what they’re saying.

This scattering of italics happens on every single page so that after a while you feel that you’re reading the ravings of a man with the italics version of Tourette’s Syndrome given to utterly random outbursts of inexplicable emphases.

‘I was extremely young,’ she reported, in a tone of unsparing self-diagnosis. ‘Younger than my years by far, remember. If I compare myself with modern youth, I was a total infant. I came of a poor family, and had no experience of the larger world whatever.’ (p.261)

Scores of times, on every page. Becomes very irritating.

The plot

Issa

Issa is a Chechen refugee: he has escaped from Russia to Turkey, getting beaten and tortured along the way, before being traded across Europe into Copenhagen, and then by container lorry to Hamburg where the novel is set.

Issa follows, then imposes himself on Big Melik, a Turkish weight-lifter, boxer, footballer, and his kindly mother, Leyla, who are both hoping to claim citizenship in Germany. Out of pure good Muslim kindness, they put him up and contact the refugee charity, Sanctuary North, and its attractive young refugee lawyer, Annabel Richter. Annabel visits to interview Issa, who is obscurely convinced that the British banker Tommy Brue, who runs a small private bank in Hamburg, can somehow help him.

It turns out that Issa’s father was a Russian Red Army colonel who commanded some of the forces which went on the rampage during that country’s wars with tiny Chechnya. Obviously the Russians raped and killed lots of Chechens – their standard modus operandi – but after the colonel raped Issa’s mother (aged just 15), he kept her round long enough for her to show that she was pregnant, and then to bear the colonel a baby boy.

Issa’s mother was then murdered by her own family, who infiltrated a brother into the enemy camp who killed her for shaming the family. Somehow the baby Issa survived all this and was brought back to Russia by the colonel. What I couldn’t figure out was how a baby brought up by a Red Army general turns into a fanatically devout Muslim, committed to saying his prayers five times a day, carrying a locket of the Koran on his wrist, and insisting nobody need help him because Allah will provide.

After the colonel’s death, Issa fell foul of the Russian authorities but escaped to Turkey, was again imprisoned and still bears the scars of his beatings and torture. But he was helped to escape by the colonel’s old fixer, Anatoly, ‘a fixer extraordinaire and straightener of everything’ (p.259), who gives him cash and also – crucially to the whole plot – a scrap of paper with details of the colonel’s German bank account.

The bank of Brue Frères

It is this which has brought Issa to Hamburg and prompts him to ask Annabel to find for him the banker Tommy Brue. For it was with Tommy’s legendary father that the legendary colonel made his legendary agreement. Back in the 1980s, Colonel Grigori Karpov (p.258) was recruited by British Intelligence and began passing secrets to our side. We paid him for his ‘product’, and put the money into a safe account with the discreet and obscure private bank of Brue Frères. Run by Brits. Trustworthy chaps.

So a Soviet colonel was an agent for MI6. We paid his fee into a private British bank. He had a natural child by a Chechen girl who somehow got brought up as a hyper-devout Muslim. Who has now travelled across Europe to claim his father’s fortune. OK.

Günter Bachmann

Günter Bachmann works for the Foreign Acquisitions Unit of Hamburg’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution i.e. their secret service, which is soon informed of Issa’s arrival and that he making interesting enquiries. (Right from the start it is made clear that Germany has a number of security forces which all compete with each other, squabbling and fighting for resources, with final decisions being taken by a senior committee of bureaucrats in Berlin.)

Bachmann is, of course, like so many JLC protagonists, a maverick. He is the subject of a busy ‘rumour mill’, the target of excitablee ‘gossip’, there are apparently countless Bachmann-watchers, he is a legend in the service. And so on.

In a really bizarre scene, we see Bachmann giving a speech to his staff about the history and function of German’s security services in the aftermath of 9/11. Puzzling,y, we are told he gives this speech to the staff so regularly that it has acquired a nickname: with characteristic leaden humour we are told that it is ‘inevitably’ known as Bachmann’s Cantata. Because Bachmann sounds like Bach, you see. Bach Cantata. Bachmann Cantata. Hilarious, no?

But why does he have to give the same speech at regular intervals to his staff? So frequently that it has acquired a nickname? Are they particularly forgetful secret agents?

Bachmann’s Cantata consists of him hopping from one leg to the other, mimicking the voices of idiot politicians or the press, running the length of the meeting room to pop up behind people, appearing in different parts of the room to carry on hopping and doing funny voices, as he mimics and enacts various conflicting points of view about post-9/11 security issues in Europe.

This extraordinary and bizarre scene is, I think, meant to depict Bachmann as somehow funny, a wit, a diamond geezer, a legend in his lifetime. But it actually makes him come over as a half-wit and, like so many other aspects of the novel’s style and dialogue, completely undermines its claims to seriousness.

‘Okay, we all know the bad joke: you can’t buy an Arab, but you can rent one. We couldn’t even rent one, for fuck’s sake! With a couple of noble exceptions I won’t bore you with, we had shit for live sources then. And we have shit for live sources now… Oh sure, we had any number of gallant German journalists and businessmen on our payroll.. But they’re not live sources. They’re not venal, disenchanted, radical imams, or Islamist kids halfway to the bomb belt. They’re not Osama’s sleepers, or his talent-spotters, or his couriers, or his quartermasters or paymasters, not even at fifty removes. They’re just nice dinner guests.’
He waited till the laughter had subsided. (p.71)

JLC assures us that this entire humourless rant is punctuated by howls of laughter from Bachmann’s adoring audience, as if he’s Lenny Henry Live at the Apollo. But JLC’s inability to judge what is genuinely funny and what he is merely telling us is funny, further undermines any authority the author has with us, further distances us from this peculiar, contrived text.

The majority of the later novels suffer from the further flaw that, at the key moment where there should be insightful analysis of the historical and geopolitical setting of the fiction, when you expect one or more of the less ludicrous characters to give a half-decent summary of the geopolitical issues which JLC obviously cares about so passionately – what you generally get is sweary ranting by a blustering buffoon. This novel is no exception. When I read ‘Bachmann’s Cantata’ to my son (18) he said it sounded like a talent contest in a lunatic asylum.

The general upshot is that Bachmann and his assistant Frey (now I would have laughed if she’d been called Robin) begin hatching a plan to keep tabs on Issa. Maybe they could ‘recruit’ him as a ‘source’ for the service, eyes and ears in Hamburg’s Muslim community.

Recap

To recap the characters so far: the German spymaster comes across as an imbecile, his assistant Erna Frey as a permanently sarcastic chorus, the English banker a pompous prat, the Chechen-Muslim hero as the Lost Child in a fairy tale, Big Melik a lumbering idiot, the narrator an orotund windbag.

It’s such an odd melange of contemporary setting with fairy tale plot and ludicrous characters that I shouldn’t have been surprised when the posh charity lawyer, Annabel, with wild improbability, decides to throw all her professional standards to the wind and fall in love with the skinny refugee man-child:

She must have known a moment would come – a client would come – that would cause her to abandon every professional and legal principle she had ever reluctantly embraced. (p.155)

Maybe this is meant to be serious and not as laughable as I, personally, found it.

The wider conspiracy

Meanwhile, the legendary maverick Bachmann is revealed to be even more of an idiot than he first appears, when he is paid a visit by the head of Hamburg Station, who reveals that the wider organisation has been keeping tabs on Issa for weeks, with informers at the local mosque, taped phone conversations, spotters watching his every move and so on.

In other words, the imbecile Bachmann – who works, remember, in the intelligence service – doesn’t even have a clue what’s happening in his own wider organisation. But still – very good at hopping from one leg to the other and doing funny voices to his staff who roll around the floor emitting hoots of laughter. That’s what counts.

MI6

But it’s not only Bachmann who finds himself outflanked. Brue is surprised to be visited by two dodgy Brits who identify themselves as Foreman and Lantern from the local branch of MI6. They knew his father; they know about Karpov; they’re here to question him about Issa.

Are these, finally, the reader hopes, going to be characters we can believe in? No. They are afflicted with the same facetious, lumbering style as all the other people in the book. For example, Foreman doesn’t refer to Lantern as his assistant or partner, but his ‘partner in crime’. Oh dear. The same jaunty banter that all the other characters us. Thus Lantern’s opening sentence is:

‘It’s a privilege to meet you, Tommy, and that’s a fact.’ (p.187)

Does anyone talk like that in 2016? These two jolly cards didn’t just know Tommy’s dad – they knew his ‘revered late father’ (p.191). They needed a quiet bank into which to pay the rewards to the old colonel, bless his cotton socks, which they started to do when Brue Frères was based in ‘dear old Vienna’.

‘I would have to consult my chief cashier. Lipizzaners are something of a world apart at Freres,’ he said. ‘That was how my father wished it to be.’
‘You’re telling me he did!’ Foreman exclaimed. ‘Your proverbial grave was a bloody chatterbox where E.A. was concerned! Exactly what I said to Ian here before you showed up. Didn’t I, Ian?’
‘His words, Tommy. Literally,’ said little Lantern with his pretty smile. (p.199)

They sound like they come from a starchy, British 1950s black-and-white crime movie. Much of the dialogue sounds like an Ealing comedy, with unnervingly random emphases dropped in along the way, all dished up with a liberal sprinkling of modern swearwords. Dixon of Dock Green might walk in at any moment, saying ‘Evening all, his words literally, Ian, that’s what he said to  me, and that’s a fact, me old matey.’

If Annabel – scion of a whole family of upper-class lawyers, father a judge, mother a judge and so on – falls in love with skinny, poverty-stricken wretch of the earth, Issa – then with equally gruesome inevitability, posh Tommy (unhappily married, a timid 60 year-old, but recipient of a jolly good public school education) falls hopelessly in love with lovely Annabel.

Presumably, for some readers, it is this ‘characterisation’ which lifts JLC out of the spy genre and makes his books contenders to be ‘serious fiction’. For me, though, it’s the exact opposite: Lthese grotesquely posh caricatures form the 1950s are precisely what undermines his later novels, makes them read like predictable cartoons.

Annabel’s flat

Annabel takes Issa to her flat to pack some stuff and then on to her other flat (it’s soo handy coming from a wealthy family) bought with a windfall from a recently dead relative. After all, the author has to park Issa somewhere and if he and Annabel shared the same flat that would create unwanted sexual frisson. For Issa is portrayed as so devout that he won’t touch, or even stand near, a woman.

This second hidden flat is down by the harbour and being done up by decorators. Here Issa hides out and Annabel comes to visit him daily and hear anecdotes about the different countries he’s been tortured in. She listens to him reciting heroic Chechen poetry and falls in love with him, like all wealthy civil liberties lawyers fall in love with all their poor sexist Muslim clients.

For his part, Issa confidently tells Annabel she will soon convert to Islam, at which point he will marry her and she will bear him many children. Some women dislike having the door held open for them because it’s patronising. Others appear to fall in love with beaten-up refugees who threateningly promise they will turn them into religiously indoctrinated baby machines. Each to their own.

German security intervenes

German agents visit Annabel at the refugee centre and question her hard in front of her boss, Ursula, though she’s tough enough to refuse to say where Issa is being hidden. She then goes to great lengths to get her beloved brother, Hugo the psychiatrist, to sign Issa into a private clinic in the country (her money will pay – wealthy family). But when she tells Issa this is what she’s arranged – to smuggle him out to this safe clinic – Issa refuses to go. With irritating rectitude, he tells her Allah will provide for his future. Cycling back from this last visit, she is kidnapped off the streets by German security.

Carried to a safe house, Annabel is slowly and steadily intimidated into playing along with German Intelligence, and forced to agree to their plan. It’s for his own good, they assure her. JLC describes the detail of her ‘interrogation’ in minute detail. This process, the process of how an interrogator slowly and carefully inveigles their way into the mind of the interviewee, has always been at the core of JLC’s novels, so it comes as no surprise to learn from his biography that it was in fact the function he himself performed when he worked for the security service in the 1950s.

The psychological to and fro of an interrogator trying to win over an informer, and the surprising revelations and confessions the informer can eventually be coaxed into making, obviously impress him 50 years later, and something of the fervour and precision and excitement of the experience comes over in these scenes.

Frau Ellenberger

Meanwhile, Bachmann goes and ‘interviews’ i.e. questions in depth, Tommy’s ancient secretary, Frau Ellenberger. He discovers

a) She had an affair with Tommy’s dad, although he was married – goodness, what a surprise – young impressionable secretary having an affair with much older, filthy rich employer, my word.
b) She disapproved of the Lipizzaner i.e. black, criminal accounts
c) She speaks in random italics like all the other characters in the book
d) Rather than retell the gist or summary of the conversations she’s recalling, she insists on impersonating the voices of all those involved, in wildly improbable detail, and thus comes across as nearly as much of an idiot as Bachmann, with the absurd impersonations and impressions of his legendary Cantata.

MI6 lean on Tommy

Then MI6’s man Lantern returns to visit Tommy Brue, making it clear that the service is very unhappy that Tommy wasn’t candid with them about the old colonel’s account or the presence of the colonel’s illegitimate son during their first conversation, and extra unhappy that he and Foreman had to learn about it from German security. ‘Embarrassing, old man.’

Lantern makes Tommy sign the Official Secrets Act with its various draconian clauses, accompanied by dire threats about what will happen to him, and his bank, for aiding and abetting terrorists. For everyone is now talking about Issa as if he is a certified terrorist, each of the security people accepting each others’ valuation of him as a dangerous radical, and tending to up the anti and increase their collective paranoia. Issa has even been given a codename, FELIX, and the conspiracy to incriminate and arrest him is now called Operation Felix.

Now they know where Annabel’s hidden him, Bachmann and his assistant Erna Frey set up base in the apartment below, and brief Annabel before and after every visit she makes about what to tell the boy. As in a lot of JLC novels – for example, the first hundred pages or so of Our Kind of Traitor – it becomes a question of her acting a part under the guidance of security service minders, who go on to analyse every word and inflection of every exchange she has with Issa, in mind-bogglingly minute detail. Either this is psychologically compelling – or very boring, depending on your taste.

Enter the CIA

At this point we are witness to a high-level conference of German security chiefs to discuss what they’re going to do with the man they have now all convinced themselves is a dangerous terrorist. To Bachmann’s dismay, a CIA agent he knows from his time in Beirut is also present. Mr CIA is introduced by the narrator as if by a circus ringmaster:

And sidling after Martha and so close on her heels that he could have been using her bulk for cover, none other than six-foot-something Newton, alias Newt, one-time deputy chief of operations at the US Embassy in Beirut. (p.306)

‘None other than…’ Are we meant to applaud?

Like all the other characters, Newt’s dialogue is sprinkled with random emphases and aggressive swearing.

‘Holy shit, Gunther, I last saw you stretched out in the bar of the Commodore! What the fuck are you doing in Hamburg, man!’ (p.306)

Probably designed to be a satire on a certain type of brash virile Yank, this characterisation is just tiresome.

Entrapping Dr Abdullah

At the meeting it becomes apparent that the assembled security agencies want Issa to a) cash in his legacy b) contact a certain Dr Abdullah, a pillar of the moderate Muslim community in Hamburg and organiser of many charities c) so that they can entrap Abdullah for receiving money from a ‘known terrorist’. So Issa and Abdullah are going to be entrapped.

Bachmann is assured by his bosses that he can then pick up Abdullah and take him to a safe house, there to recruit him as a uniquely well-placed source embedded in the Hamburg Muslim community. OK. He is mollified. He hardly does any hopping fro one leg to another. And hardly any funny voices.

As with all late JLC it is made very clear that the western security services are far more dangerous than any terrorists: it’s western security services who implicate innocent people, arrest them without cause, fly them round the world for torture and indefinite confinement, blackmail and intimidate anyone they feel like. They act above any laws or restraints.

In accordance with the plan, Annabel is tasked by her minders with persuading Issa to meet with Dr Abdullah (now codenamed SIGNPOST) and donate his legacy to the many good Muslim causes which Abdullah manages – while Tommy is sent to meet Abdullah in person and gently introduce him to the idea that a mystery-money-donating stranger wants to give him the biggest bequest of his career. The plummy banker and lawyer have become pawns in the wider intelligence plan. They are entrapping the two good Muslims.

At Abdullah’s institute, Tommy meets his minders and his worthy family, the daughter studying to be a doctor, the honourable and devoted son. Abdullah is a Good Man. When he is told how much he stands to gain – by now we’ve been told that Issa is set to inherit $12.5 million from his dead father’s investments – Dr Abdullah’s face lights up. Oh, all the good and noble charitable causes he will be able to endow!

Never had [Tommy] seen a more radiant picture of innocent rapture than the good doctor now. (p.346)

Still, Abdullah is no fool and Tommy has to work hard to persuade him to accept the tainted money. Abdullah is tentative and hesitant throughout the rest of the book. Issa for his part, explains to Annabel that he has some plausible ‘conditions’ before handing over all his legacy to Dr A. For a start Chechen charities must receive first tranches of the money – and he wants enough to fund his own training as a doctor so he can go back to his country and heal the sick – but the rest is Abdullah’s to dispose of as the wise and good man thinks best.

Brue had demanded of his MI6 minders a) a passport for Issa b) guarantee of no prosecution for Annabel. He meets her at the Atlantic restaurant to show them both and assure her of his good faith. He is hopelessly in love with her. She notices but can’t help. She is hopelessly in love with Issa. The reader notes with relief that there are only 50 or so pages left till the end of the book.

So Annabel goes off to collect the domineering, patriarchal Issa, still working away at converting her to the True Faith so she can start bearing his children. She persuades him – still pretty suspicious – down into the limousine which will take them to the bank. Unbeknown to the two saintly Muslims, the meeting between Abdullah and Issa at the Frères bank is incredibly staked out, with two competing factions of German security and British Intelligence taping it and watching from a van outside.

Big Melik and Leyla

We periodically revert to the characters we met right at the start of the book, the gentle giant Big Melik and his mother Leyla, the Turkish Muslims who were hoping to get German citizenship and were kind enough to take Issa into their home before introducing him to Annabel.

Half way through the book, we had seen Bachmann assure his assistant Erna that Melik and Leyla would be able to fly off to her niece’s wedding in Turkey and then return to Germany where their citizenship application would be supported. Now Bachmann embarrassedly admits that the powers-that-be above him have decreed that Melik and Leyla will be refused return to Germany on the grounds of harbouring a known ‘terrorist’, and in all likelihood imprisoned, and probably tortured, in Turkey.

Erna isn’t impressed. Bachmann’s team aren’t hooting with laughter now at his uproarious antics. His prattish ineptitude is coming home to roost.

Shocking climax

Now Bachmann is disguised as a grumpy taxi driver parked outside the bank. The plan is that Tommy will supervise the transfer of Issa’s funds down in the vault, then ring for a taxi and hey presto Bachmann will appear – fully prepared to whisk an unsuspecting Abdullah off to a safe house where he can set about interrogating him.

Over the closed circuit TV we watch Tommy take Abdullah and Issa and Annabel down into the bowels of the bank, there to open an ancient deposit box and extract the bonds which represent the colonel’s legacy and Issa’s fortune. With a few strokes of the pen the $12.5 million is legally signed over to Issa and Tommy has transferred it into an active account. He and Abdullah then pore over the list of Abdullah’s charities and systematically dispose of the fortune in batches of payments to worthy causes. Allah’s will is done.

Much shaking of hands and congratulatory laughter, as they get their coats and emerge into the gravel drive outside the bank smiling and happy. And here is Bachmann driving the taxi Brue ordered and ready to carry out his plan of whisking off Dr A to a safe house. Abdullah is at the door and about to get into the cab when — there is a screech of brakes and a huge van careers into the back of taxi, with two black Mercedes appearing out of nowhere to block it off at either end of the drive.

Out of the van leap half a dozen big men in balaclavas who seize Issa and Abdullah and throw them into the van, lock the doors and drive off. Bachmann is still dazed, having been thrown against the steering wheel, Annabel is holding the door handle of the van shrieking ‘let him go let him go’ till forced to let go herself, and the van has gone. Wow.

They were all betrayed. Bachmann’s tidy little scheme has been swamped by American heavy-handedness. He limps down the road and round the corner to where he knows his boss, Mohr, is waiting. Mohr, embarrassed, fakes receiving a call on his mobile leaving Bachmann to furiously confront six-foot-something Newt, the CIA man.

And here, on the penultimate page, le Carré lets rip, depicting the American as a brutal war-on-terror monster. (It would be interesting to hear something intelligent at this point but, as usual in these late novels, the key speeches, the vital analysis which underpins the entire plot, consists of blustering, shouting swearing.)

‘Where have you taken him?’ Bachmann asked.
‘Abdullah? Who gives a shit? Some hole in the desert, for all I know. Justice has been rendered, man. We can all go home.
He had spoken these last words in English, but Bachmann in his dazed state failed to get his mind round them.
Rendered?’ he repeated stupidly. ‘What’s rendered? What justice are you talking about?’
American justice, asshole. Whose do you think? Justice from the fucking hip, man. No-crap justice, that kind of justice! Justice with no fucking lawyers around to pervert the course. Have you never heard of extraordinary rendition? Time you Krauts had a word for it.’ (p.415)

So that’s that then. As near as we get to an explanation or analysis. ‘American justice, asshole.’

Thoughts

The Yanks are portrayed as doubly stupid: first for cruelly and unjustly ‘rendering’ two men who have been painted as totally innocent and harmless, but secondly for devastating Bachmann’s much cleverer and more practical plan to recruit Abdullah and have him work as an agent on the inside – giving us a potential lifetime of tip-offs and inside information from the heart of the Muslim community.

On another level, the Americans’ devastation of Bachmann’s plan is in effect a repudiation of the technique of slow, patient interrogation and recruitment, which we know le Carré himself carried out during his time as a security service employee, and which is at the core of so many of his books: think of the many long, patient questionings undertaken by the calm and thoughtful George Smiley. The violent abduction represents a kind of rape of everything JLC thought valuable and insightful about his own intelligence work.

(A tiny extra insult is the way that, standing in the lee of six-foot Newt as he delivers his tirade to the ‘liberal’ Kraut, Bachmann, stands the British Intelligence man, Ian Lantern, repeatedly described as ‘little’, short, and, in these final scenes, depicted as hanging round the tall, virile Yank like a lapdog, a poodle, a bully’s hanger-on. Much, one imagines, as JLC sees his pathetic country under the leadership of ‘Brother Blair’ sucking up to the bully boys of the USA.)

This final speech merely expresses more forcefully the various sarcasms and aspersions which JLC had cast on German and British security, on their supposed ‘standards’ and ‘integrity’, throughout the novel. His contempt for his old employer grows more tangible – and is expressed in fiercer terms – in each of these late novels.

There is, of course, a very strong case to make against America’s use of kidnapping and the illegal transport of prisoners, limitless imprisonment without trial and the use of terrible and illegal torture techniques. A case which is lucidly made by countless pressure groups, charities and journalists (some of which are referenced in the afterword to this book).

And, overall, in summary, the plot is a dramatisation of this kind of lawless abduction. But as well as its plot, a novel is also about its style, about its use of language. And, for me, le Carré’s laboured, heavy-handed, facetious, sarcastic and overblown tone make his later books almost unreadable. And this fatally undermines the undoubted passion and anger he feels for his ideas.

If causes were judged by the anger, passion and sarcasm they arouse, then social media would be an academy of geniuses. But they also carry weight according to the clarity and insight their proponents bring to them. And too often, alas, le Carré brings nothing but sweary bluster and schoolboy sarcasm to what are, undoubtedly, very serious issues which should concern us all.

P.S. My first pony

Early into JLC’s post-Cold War novels I began to notice that every one of them is so unwittingly posh and features such pukka upper-class characters, that they all contain a reference to the characters’ first little pony. Since I noticed this I’ve been on the lookout for each novel’s my-little-pony moment. This one comes when the privileged lawyer Annabel – the one ‘possessed of fabled powers or argument and resistance’ – is reflecting on her ‘relationship’ with Issa.

She was reminded of a pony she had once had. He was called Moritz, and Moritz was a delinquent. He was unbreakable and unrideable. Not a family in Baden-Wittemberg would have him – until Annabel heard about him and, to exert her power, overrode her parents and raised money among her schoolfriends to buy him. When Moritz was delivered, he kicked the groom, kicked a hole in his stall, and broke his way into the paddock. But next morning when Annabel in trepidation went out to him, he strolled towards her, lowered his head for the halter and became her love for ever more. (p.244)

Probably le Carré wants his books to move us with their deeply drawn characters and their passionate dramatisation of contemporary issues. But, although I am politically sympathetic to all his beliefs, I remember the books mainly for their bombastic style and the unwitting poshness of his helplessly upper-class characters.


Credit

A Most Wanted Man by John le Carré was published in 2008 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 2009 Hodder paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

1961 Call for the Dead – Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
1962 A Murder of Quality – Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
1963 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
1965 The Looking Glass War – A peculiar, downbeat and depressing spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. Smiley makes peripheral appearances trying to prevent the operation and then clear up the mess.
1968 A Small Town in Germany – Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
1971 The Naïve and Sentimental Lover
1974 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
1977 The Honourable Schoolboy – Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
1979 Smiley’s People – The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
1983 The Little Drummer Girl – A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
1986 A Perfect Spy – Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
1989 The Russia House – Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
1990 The Secret Pilgrim – A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War, and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
1993 The Night Manager – Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper – described with characteristic hyperbole as ‘the worst man in the world’ – after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside the circle, Pine disobeys orders by (inevitably) falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the whole mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself, which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
1995 Our Game – Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – Larry Pettifer, who he knew at Winchester public school, then Oxford and personally recruited into the Service – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities out of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia, and that Larry has also seduced his girlfriend, Emma, in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three expensively-educated but dislikeable upper-class twits. (414 pages)
1996 The Tailor of Panama – Andrew Osnard, old Etonian conman, flukes a job in British Intelligence and is posted to Panama where he latches onto the half-Jewish owner of a ‘traditional’ English gentlemen’s tailor’s, Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based within an entirely fictional underground revolutionary movement, so they can embezzle the money London sends them to support it. Described as a comedy, the book has a few moments of humour, but is mostly grimly cynical about the corrupt workings of British government, British intelligence, British diplomats and of the super-cynical British media mogul who, it turns out, is behind an elaborate conspiracy to provoke a gruesomely violent American invasion of Panama, leaving you feeling sick and jaundiced at a sick and jaundiced world. (458 pages)
1999 Single & Single – Public schoolboy Oliver Single joins the law-cum-investment firm of his father, the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single, to discover it is little more than a money-laundering front for international crooks, specifically the Orlov brothers from Georgia. He informs on his father to the authorities and disappears into a witness protection programme. The novel opens several years later with the murder of one of the firm’s senior lawyers by the Russian ‘clients’, which prompts Single & Single to go into meltdown, Tiger to disappear, and Oliver to come out of hiding and embark on a desperate quest to track down his estranged father before he, too, is killed.
2001 The Constant Gardener – Posh young free-spirited diplomat’s wife Tessa Quayle discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results for the poor patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining events up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s long quest to discover the truth about her death.
2003 Absolute Friends – Head prefect and champion fast bowler Ted Mundy befriends the radical leader Sasha in the radical Berlin of the late 1960s. Years later he is approached by Sasha, now living in East Germany, who says he wants to spy for the West, and thus begins Ted’s career in espionage, which comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha unwittingly lures Ted into a Machiavellian American sting whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’, climaxing with them being shot down like dogs. First part good, second part overblown.
2006 The Mission Song – Ex-public school boy Bruno ‘Salvo’ Salvador, a half-Congolese translator, gives a first-person narrative of an unofficial meeting of three leaders of Congo’s warring factions who have been brought together by a British ‘syndicate’, who are planning to engineer a coup and impose a ‘middle of the road’ leader, ostensibly to bring ‘peace’ to Salvo’s troubled homeland. Salvo learns that the real plan is to allow the leader’s Western backers to plunder the country’s mineral resources and sets out on a quixotic mission to reveal the ‘truth’.
2008 A Most Wanted Man – Posh Hamburg-based British banker Tommy Brue and posh refugee lawyer Annabel Richter find themselves involved in a conspiracy by German security services to frame an apparently innocent Muslim refugee, and the moderate organiser of Muslim charities, as ‘terrorists’. But this dubious plan is itself brutally trumped by the Americans who, in the form of the CIA, betray all the characters in the book, and violently kidnap the two Muslims, taking them away for indefinite incarceration and torture.
2010 Our Kind of Traitor –
2013 A Delicate Truth –

The Afghan by Frederick Forsyth (2006)

The two F-16 Falcons were already airborne and three minutes distant. There is a squadron at Pensacola Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle that maintains a five-minute-to-scramble standby readiness round the clock. Its primary use is against drug smugglers, airborne and sometimes seaborne, trying to slip into Florida and neighbouring states with (mainly) cocaine. They came out of the sunset in a clear darkling sky, locked on to the tanker west of Bimini and armed their Maverick missiles. Each pilot’s visual display showed him the smart missiles’ lock on the target and the death of the tanker was very mechanical, very precise, very devoid of emotion. (p.428)

Colonel Mike Martin, ex-Parachute Regiment and SAS, was the hero of Forsyth’s 1994 novel, The Fist of God, where he almost single-handedly won the Gulf War – first by organising resistance groups among the occupied Kuwaitis, then by infiltrating into Baghdad itself and radioing back information from a top secret source inside Saddam’s cabinet, before then going on to locate and help destroy Saddam’s top secret Supergun which was primed to launch a nuclear weapon at the invading Allies, before escaping unscathed back to Allied lines. Phew!

7/7

Well, Mike’s back! The novel opens with Mike, now retired, doing up a nice cottage he’s bought in rural Hampshire and, being a manly sort of man, doing it all himself. Forsyth then gives an account of 7/7, the co-ordinated Islamic suicide bombing of London buses and Tube trains. As I read this (and the countless other factual sections of the novel) it occurred to me that Forsyth doesn’t so much write or describe the events which makes up his novels; he reports them. He doesn’t write novels; he files them.

One of the throwaway mobile phones bought by the suicide bombers is left over in the bags of stuff left with their Middle Eastern mentors and instructors and so ends up being taken back to Pakistan, where a lowly jihadist uses it when his own one runs out of battery, just long enough to give the Pakistani security forces a location for the call, and a snatch squad to be dispatched to the working class, fundamentalist quarter of Islamabad, accompanied by a British observer. They break into the fifth floor apartment, shoot dead a jihadist who reaches for a gun, capture the other three, then hear a bustle from the bedroom, run through and are just too late to stop a turbaned man throwing himself out the window to his death.

Before he jumped the man had attempted to trash the laptop he was using, but US and British experts can extract a surprising amount from even a badly damaged computer. The dead man was Tewfik al-Qur, international banker for Al Qaeda. There was disappointingly little that was really useful on the laptop, except for several documents referring to something called ‘Al-Isra’. What’s that?

The Koran Committee

Cut to the States where Forsyth gives a full explanation of the history and structure of the CIA and its history of involvement with Islamic terrorism, before explaining that it’s to answer that question that the head of its Mid-East division convenes a meeting of ‘the Koran Committee’, four leading academic experts on the Koran and Muslim teaching.

One of the four is Dr Terry Martin, the gay brother of Colonel Mike (who we also met in Fist of God). The four agree that Al-Isra is the term referring to the Prophet Mohammed’s night flight up into the seven heavens as described in The Koran (p.54). As used in the documents salvaged from the laptop, they guess it must refer to a major AQ attack, but they have no idea what. In the car to the airport, his colleague says if only we had someone who could infiltrate AQ as one of their own, but we don’t know anyone like that.

‘I do,’ replies Terry, ‘My brother,’ then wishes he could bite his tongue off. The car is, of course, bugged. The CIA contact British Intelligence and we witness high-level discussions about the feasibility of infiltrating a Westerner into AQ. Not from a standing start, no-one could get in without a tremendous amount of vetting among himself and his family, tribe, clan etc – but what about impersonating an existing AQ member?

The Afghan

Where would you find one? Well, what about the inmates of Guantanamo Bay, would there happen to be someone there who is the spitting image of Colonel Mike (with the dark colouring, black hair and brown eyes he inherited from his Indian grand-mother and which came in so handy infiltrating Baghdad 15 years earlier)? Yes, there is! And would Colonel Mike in fact just happen to have fought side by side with that inmate in the far off days of the Mujahideen resistance to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan? Yep.

For incarcerated in ‘Gitmo’ is one Izmat Khan, senior commander in the Taliban, who could be the double of Colonel Mike and who Mike in fact not only met, but whose life he saved during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Yes! As Sacaramanga would say, ‘Funny coincidence department!’

So the plan is hatched: the CIA will brief and train Colonel Mike to infiltrate AQ ranks to find out whatever Al-Isra is – and prevent it!

All this is established by page 100 of this fast-moving 400-page thriller. The remaining 300 pages tell the twists and turns of Colonel Mike’s attempt to impersonate Khan, larded with huge amounts of trademark Forsyth factual background and journalistic thumb-nailing.

There are three strands:

1. Operation Crowbar

Mike replaces Khan at Gitmo, is returned to Afghanistan after a carefully arranged trial, where the CIA arrange him to be ‘liberated’ by fighters in a staged break-out. Thus ‘set at large’, Mike makes his way into Pakistan and to the nearest radical mosque. He identifies himself as the legendary fighter known as ‘The Afghan’. Word is passed of his escape and he is moved into a ‘people funnel’ which carries him to the United Arab Emirates, to a safe house where he is interrogated by the suave Westernised Dr Al-Khattab. This is the hinge of the plot and Mike swings it when he mentions that he has actually met the Sheikh aka bin Laden (which he did in a cave complex in Afghanistan all those years ago) and, via a lengthy string of intermediaries, word comes back that OBL remembers him. Thus ‘approved’, Mike is dispatched with one of his minders to the Philippines, there to join a cargo ship.

2. The rogue ship

All these chapters are interspersed with other chapters telling the fate of two innocent cargo vessels, captained by European crews. Both are hijacked by terrorist pirates who force the captain of the first one, the Java Star, to radio mayday, before killing him and all his crew. The hijacked ship dumps all the ‘wreckage’ it can for passing boats to find, then sneaks into a creek of a nearby island and is transformed by hired Chinese engineers. Transformed to a) be full of powerful explosive b) look like another cargo ship, The Countess of Richmond. This also is hijacked, and its captain and crew murdered and genuinely sunk.

The Java Star will now masquerade as The Countess of Richmond except that instead of genuine containers of filk and teak, it is carrying explosives. Only in the final pages of the novel do we realise that it is going to be used, not to enter a highly populated port and detonated, as Western experts are worried – but to ram the newest biggest cruise liner in the world, the Queen Mary 2. Why?

Because, after the massive protests attending the G8 summit in Scotland in July 2005, the organisers of this biennial summit of the most powerful leaders in the world solved the problems of security and protestor containment, by holding the next G8 summit aboard the biggest, most luxurious cruise liner in the world.

(And so narrative strand emerges during which we see the ship docked, boarded by the national leaders, and then departing New York, all from the point of view of its First Officer, David Gundlach, p.432.)

3. The safe house in the Rockies

Interspersed is the third strand, the events surrounding the real Izmat Khan who is transported from Gitmo to a specially-built security facility high in the Rockies near the Canadian border, built solely for him and manned by CIA and Army. It is a shame that, towards the end of the novel, as the ship plot reaches its climax, an Air Force fighter plane (a F-15 Strike Eagle, described in loving detail) develops a mechanical fault and crashes while flying over the base.

In a convenient coincidence the wreckage falls on the security post, killing half the staff and, miraculously, tearing down the wall of Khan’s cell. By the time the security guards recover from the disaster Khan is long gone into the snowy wastes.

Khan comes across a local who had heard about the plane crash, saddled his horse and was riding to help. A seasoned fighter, Khan kills the American, stealing his horse and gun and provisions.

But a highly-trained US snatch squad is soon on his tail. This strand climaxes as the squad finally catch up with Khan as he stands in a phone booth at a settlement next to a rough road through the mountains. He is looking for change in the pockets of the dead American’s winter coat and dialling a number he was given years earlier, the number of the AQ organiser in the West. Just a few words would alert AQ to the fact Colonel Mike is an imposter.

The phone booth happens to be just across the border into Canada but the captain in charge of the snatch squad tells his best sniper, a half-Indian tracker, to take Khan out. Bang. The back of the Afghan’s head is blown off.

The explosive climax

During the Java Star’s long steam from the Philippines through the Indian Ocean, round Africa and into mid-Atlantic, Colonel Mike had been racking his brains about how to either a) send a message to his CIA/SIS minders b) sabotage the ship or killing some or all of the crew of seven. But neither is ever quite feasible and so he continues to play the role of Afghan fanatic, set on suicide, along with the other terrorists, not really knowing what is hidden in the hold of the ship, nor where they are steering or why. All this is kept entirely to himself by the Jordanian AQ leader of the crew, Ibrahim.

In the tense last few pages we watch as the Queen Mary steams towards the rogue Countess of Richmond, now stationary in the water and claiming, over the radio, to have an engine malfunction. Most of the crew slip into an inflatable dinghy which Colonel Mike knows they’re going to use to pull away from the ship and video whatever the event is going to be, instantly transmitting video of the ‘spectacular’ to websites which will beam it round the world to admiring Muslim youths.

As the crew, except the fanatical leader, descend the ladder into dinghy, Colonel Mike, coming last, leans down and slashes the side of the dinghy wide open, then cuts the arm of the crew member holding the rope to the ship. Instantly, the dinghy starts to drift astern the ship, taking water, and is quickly dragged down by the weight of its outboard motor, taking all hands, yelling impotent threats of abuse till the last.

Mike climbs back up the rope ladder and returns to the bridge, where the leader-cum-captain tells him he should have left. The dinghy was full, Mike replies, and I want to be martyred here with you.

The captain grunts then blows the small explosive charges which had been placed in the ship’s hold a month earlier. These blow open the lids of the six huge containers holding Liquid Gas Petroleum. In a flash Mike realises this heavier-than-air and hugely combustible gas will now silently roll across the surface of the sea towards the Queen Mary. When detonated it will cause an explosion as big as an atom bomb, incinerating everything in a five mile radius, including the leaders of the eight most powerful nations on earth.

His eyes flick from Ibrahim to the radio, then to the red button at his side, obviously linked to a detonator. Ibrahim sees the movement and in a flash realises Mike is an imposter and traitor. Mike goes for the knife he’d used earlier, but Ibrahim pulls a gun quicker. Mike realises he has no chance of reaching the detonator but goes for it anyway, lunges for the button, takes a bullet direct to the heart but carries on to press the plunger. Mike, Ibrahim and the Countess of Richmond disappear in a vast plume of fire.

Which can be seen from the Queen Mary 2, still 15 miles away and unscathed. Satellite, helicopter, plane and escort ships investigate and conclude the Richmond blew up but now poses no threat. The QM2 steams on unmolested. Colonel Mike has saved the leaders of the Free World and 4,000 other sailors, diplomats and bureaucrats.

Epilogue

Ten pages detail the investigation which pieces together the story of how terrorists funded the capture of two ships and the creation of, effectively, a bomb ship, but with the covering papers of an innocent cargo ship. Dr Al-Khattab is arrested and (improbably) sings like a canary, revealing the identities of hundred sleeper agents in the UK (if only) and confirming the story of ‘the Afghan’. He is amazed and appalled to learn the man he OKed for the job was in fact a Western agent.

The novel ends with a hymn to the courage of Colonel Mike, in the form of a muted description of the ceremony held to mark his death at the SAS headquarters in Hereford.

[Is there a Forsyth novel where the SAS don’t play a massive role? I wouldn’t be surprised if he was on a retainer to write what sometimes seems like extended recruitment literature for them.]


The good and the bad

When I summarised the plot to my teenage son, he rolled his eyes and said, ‘That sounds awful; the impersonation story sounds sooo unlikely and then all those convenient coincidences! How cheesy!’ Well, yes. There is something laughably preposterous about the whole story.

But I enjoyed reading it. Why? Because I enjoyed the factual research which dominates, which saturates, the text.

Izmat Khan isn’t really a character, he is a token through which Forsyth is able to retell the long, lamentable story of Afghanistan from the time of the Soviet invasion (1979). The account of his childhood on his father’s tiny farm in the mountains, of the village and tribal structure, of what happened to it during the years of the mujihadeen resistance, of the US cruise missile strike which wiped out his entire family and village and gave him an unswerving hatred of the West, all this is fascinating. As is the detailed account Forsyth gives of the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi, a bloody uprising inside a prisoner of war camp in the early stages of the US invasion of Afghanistan. Powerful, convincing and a true event, into which Forsyth skilfully inserts his Taliban ‘hero’.

Just as fascinating is the long account of Colonel Mike’s military career, especially the awesome training of the Parachute Regiment and then the SAS.

Fascinating is Forsyth’s account of the rise of the Taliban within Afghanistan, and the parallel rise of Al Qaeda under the tutelage of bin Laden.

Equally absorbing are the many places where Forsyth explains the measures taken by US and British security to address the threat of terrorism, especially the astonishing advances in computer technology and digital communications.

Just flicking back through the pages I come across the description of how the F-15 Strike Eagle malfunctions, with a lengthy explanation of how its advanced ejector-seat technology works, the sensors within the pilots’ suits which allowed the air base to monitor their temperature, pulse and so on, the microphones and headsets which can be patched through to the radios of the rescuers who set off to find them in the snowy wastes – all this is fascinating and compelling, for the gadget-obsessed teenage boy in all of us.

When the Army trackers finally shoot the fugitive Khan, the event is described coldly and clinically. If you expect your ‘novel’ to pay some kind of homage to human life, you will be disappointed. What Forsyth’s novels do is pay a kind of homage to the technology of killing. Whether the homage is revoltingly right-wing, cruel and violent for its own sake – or is factual and precise, accurate and unillusioned – is a matter of taste.

Lying prone at Captain Linnett’s feet was his leading sniper, Master Sergeant Peter Bearpaw. He was a half-blood Santee Sioux with a Hispanic mother. He came from the slums of Detroit and the army was his life. He had high cheekbones and eyes that sloped like a wolf. And he was the best marksman in the Green Berets.

What he cradled as he squinted across the valley was the Cheyenne .408 by CheyTac of Idaho. It was a more recent development than the others, but over three thousand rounds on the range it had become his weapon of choice. It was a bolt-action rifle, which he appreciated because the total lock-down of a closed bolt give that tiny extra stability at the moment of detonation.

He had inserted the single slug, very long and slim, and he had burnished and buffed the nose tip to eradicate the tiniest vibration in flight. Along the top of the breech ran a Jim Leatherwood x24 scope sight.

‘I have him, captain,’ he whispered. (p.395)

All the sentences are factual. They are lean. There isn’t a redundant word. You can dispute the fundamental stance of Forsyth’s hero worship of soldiers and policemen. But if war, conflict and killing are to be described, this is the way to do it. Without grandstanding rhetoric, without fancy words, with no attempt at all at psychology or feeling. Instead, the complete devotion of the prose to the craftsman and his tools. A rhetoric of efficiency and effectiveness. Forsyth’s novels contain page after page with this taut, thrilling, heartless velocity.

I read this novel when it came out and remember being so disgusted with how far Forsyth had fallen from the heights of Day of the Jackal that I threw it away. Now, having read all his novels in order of publication, I realise DOTJ was a one-off achievement and almost all Forsyth’s other books are rubbish, if judged as ‘traditional’ novels.

But their merit is the immensely thorough and absorbing descriptions of the settings and political histories, the technology and organisations which they explain in such loving detail.

Rather than unsatisfactory novels with an immense amount of background information, I read Forsyth’s novels as fascinating articles about recent conflicts and geopolitical issues, studded with compellingly described technological information, all livened up by cheesy thriller plots – which you are under no obligation to take at all seriously.


Credit

The Afghan by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 2006. All quotes and references are from the 2007 Corgi paperback edition.

Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

Byzantium: The Early Centuries by John Julius Norwich (1988)

Viscount Norwich

As his own website explains:

John Julius, 2nd Viscount Norwich, was born on 15 September 1929, the son of the statesman and diplomat Alfred Duff Cooper (1st Viscount) and the Lady Diana Cooper. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H.M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer.

Norwich has written or edited about thirty books, the major ones being histories of the Mediterranean, of Sicily, of Venice and of Byzantium. The volume under review is the first of the trilogy of popular histories which continues with Byzantium: The Apogee (1992) and Byzantium: The Decline and Fall (1995).

The Early Centuries is in 18 chapters which take us from the family background of the Emperor Constantine (reigned in the 320s and 330s) through to the Empress Irene (775 to 802) ie up to the time of Charlemagne (crowned 800 AD in Rome). The book comes with handy extras like maps of all the relevant territory, family trees of the complex imperial families, a list of emperors and – nice touch, this – a list of sites in present-day Istanbul which date from the Byzantine Empire and which tourists can still see and visit today.

Highlights

It was the Emperor Diocletian who decided to split the empire in two, appointing a fellow emperor to rule the West in 293 while Diocletian concentrated on the East, securing the whole of the current Middle East round to Egypt against attack from the Persian Empire, while also guarding the frontier along the river Danube.

It was the Emperor Constantine who founded the new eastern capital of Constantinople upon the small Greek city of Byzantium. By the late 300s the Empire was under pressure from invading barbarians beyond the borders, leading to a series of wars, alliances, betrayals and defeats. In the 390s the western emperors had moved their court to Milan in northern Italy, closer to the centre of western Europe, and in 402 moved on again to Ravenna, thought to be more defensible behind a network of marshes.

The scholar Emperor Julian reigned for 18 months during which he tried to reinstitute paganism across the Empire, closing Christian churches, subsidising the great temples, attending countless pagan ceremonies, all with little effect, until he died from a spear wound incurred during his fruitless invasion of the Persian Empire, in 363. With his death went the last hopes of reviving paganism and during the reign of Theodosius (379-395) the old religion was banned, temples closed and Christianity made the official and compulsory state religion.

The various barbarian incursions led up to the reign of terror of Attila the Hun (434-453). During this period the Empire suffered a series of military blows and by the time of Attila’s death, Britain had been abandoned (by 410), the Franks had taken over Gaul, Gothic tribes were settled in Spain and the western half of north Africa – the Empire’s breadbasket – had been seized and settled by the Vandals. Norwich gives a relatively brief account of Attila, which can however be supplemented by reference to Christopher Kelly’s recent book.

The next major figure is the Emperor Justinian who ruled from 527 to 565, and launched expeditions to reconquer North Africa, then to seize back Italy, before being distracted by incursions from the newly warlike Persian Empire, as well as reeling from major outbreaks of plague which decimated the population from the 540s onwards. All his clever schemes came to nothing and he left the Eastern Empire bankrupt.

Norwich devotes more space to Justinian than any other emperor (pages 190 to 263) in an account which I found profoundly depressing. Specifically regarding the career of his top general, Belisarius, who slaved away for the emperor devotedly but was hampered at every turn by the scheming of the Empress Theodora. It is profoundly lowering to see such a talent so hamstrung, and gives a powerful sense of the self-defeating futility of palace intrigues which raged on while the empire was collapsing around them.

But, on a different level, it is also depressing to see in some detail how Justinian’s ‘noble’ campaign to reclaim Italy from the Gothic rulers who had overthrown the last Western emperor in 476 (the so-called Gothic Wars which lasted a generation, from 535 to 554) was in the end so self-defeating. Belisarius’s military campaign amounted to besieging most of the major cities and devastating the countryside his troops had to live off; but when he was recalled to Constantinople, management of the country was handed over to a cabal of greedy incompetents who taxed it to the hilt, continued plundering all available settlements while turning tail and running every time the Goths threatened to counter-attack. The upshot was that most Italians came to hate the Greek Byzantine army and administrators much more than the Goths, and both were happy when a new tribe, the Lombards, swarmed into the peninsula in the 560s, eliminating both their predecessors and quickly establishing kingdoms throughout Italy.

Heraclius

There is a similar tragic, or just depressing, downward spiral to the reign of Heraclius (610-641). Heraclius was appointed exarch (ruler/manager) of Carthage in the comprehensive reorganisation of the Eastern Empire carried out by the Emperor Maurice (582 to 602). Maurice (a wise and efficient ruler, according to Norwich) was overthrown and executed along with six of his sons in a coup carried out by a general, Phocas. Their heads (and this happens over and over again in this history) were impaled on spikes and put on display in Constantinople. Nice. Phocas was a populist, but when he met resistance he responded with brutality. Under his rule the Danube borders were breached by Avars (yet another barbarian tribe) while the ruler of Persia, who had concluded a truce with Maurice, used Phocas’s rebellion as an opportunity to relaunch the semi-permanent Persian War and seize territory round to Egypt in the south and as far into Asia Minor as Antioch.

It was this growing chaos around the Empire which prompted Heraclius to raise the standard of rebellion in Carthage and sail slowly to Constantinople, securing his supply routes and islands along the way. By the time Heraclius arrived at the capital, the army, politicians and religious leaders were all ready to abandon the tyrant. Phocas was dragged before Heraclius and, rather rashly, insulted him to his face. So Heraclius had Phocas beheaded on the spot, his body was mutilated, paraded through the capital and burned.

After this grim start Heraclius settles down to become a great emperor, reorganising the Empire’s finances and defences, seeking a solution to the endless problem of the monophysite heresy which plagued and divided the Empire, and latterly embarking on a spectacularly successful campaign against the Persians, scoring a series of decisive victories which eventually led to the overthrow of their great leader, Chosroes II. If Heraclius had died in 628, he would have gone down as one of the great emperors for administrative reforms and military successes.

However, he lived into the first decade of the Rise of Islam. In 622 Mohammed had fled from Mecca to Medina, marking the start of the Muslim era. In 633 Mohammed died and his followers, tightly organised and enthused with fanatical fervour, swept out of Arabia to conquer the Middle East. Part of the reason for their early success was that twenty years of gruelling warfare had shattered the region and exhausted its two great powers, Byzantium and Persia. Into this vacuum swept the Muslims.

Just as importantly, most of the region’s inhabitants were ‘monophysites’. This was the Christian heresy which believed that Jesus Christ had only one ‘nature’, that the godhead and the human being were united. Taken to a logical extreme, this implied that God actually died on the Cross, which is an obvious logical problem. This explains why a series of Church Councils declared ‘monophysitism’ to be a heresy, and affirmed the ‘Catholic’ position that Jesus had two distinct ‘natures’, united in one ‘person’. But these were subtle differences, difficult for many people to grasp. And it’s a consistent thread of the book that there was a big difference in theology between the Latin West and the Greek East of the Empire.

The East was a hotbed of theological debate, packed with fiery bishops, monks, preachers and heretics all disputing a wide range of subtle variations of Christian belief, and it took centuries to hammer out an ‘orthodox’ set of beliefs, and try to put down the opposing ‘heresies’. And hence, historians argue, on the level of personal belief, the Arabs’ extremely simple, practical monotheism (‘there is only one god, Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet’) appealed to much of a population exhausted by centuries of conflict caused by Christian heresies. The Muslims swept north to Damascus and south through Egypt, conquering vast areas which were never to be Christian again.

So Heraclius’s last decade was spent watching everything he had planned and fought for – reclaimed territory from the Persians and Christian unity – destroyed before his very eyes. Prematurely aged and sick, he began to deteriorate mentally, developed a phobia of water and brutally punished those he suspected of conspiring against him (ordering the noses and hands cut off his nephew Theodosius and his bastard son Athanaric) before passing away, a senile and disappointed old man who’d lived on into a new era.

The Middle Ages

Historians like drawing lines and defining eras. This book is no exception and joins the host of others which variously claim that the Middle Ages started here, or here, or here: with the death of Theodosius the Great (395), with the Sack of Rome (410), with the overthrow of the last Western Emperor (476), with the death of Justinian (565), and so on.

For me, the lesson of this book, as of Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity, is that it is the arrival of the Muslims on the world stage which marks the decisive break. All the other moments are part of a continuum of Roman rule or semi-rule or detached rule or vicarious rule (ie allowing barbarians to rule ‘in the name of’ the emperor etc). But when the Middle East, Egypt and the entire African coast was lost to Islam that was it. A clean and definitive break which lasts to the present day. Surely it is the advent of Islam which decisively marks the start of the Middle Ages.


Thoughts

1. Great men

It’s beautifully written, very fluent and entertaining but it is very much a history of emperors. It takes for granted that a history of this subject will be a history of Great Men. That there are other perspectives is demonstrated by Peter Brown’s history of Late Antiquity which features the emperors, of course, but also captures a lot about the changing economic and social scene, or a book like Paul Johnson’s History of Christianity which does what it says on the tin and mentions the political changes purely as background to his main theme, the evolution of Christian theology and debate.

2. Murder and massacre

Not just about Great Men but about their Great Quarrels. The history of Byzantium is presented as a succession of power struggles and features an extraordinary amount of double-dealing, treachery and murder. And that’s just in Constantine the Great’s family – eg in 326 Constantine had his eldest son, Crispus, and then his own wife, the Empress Faustina, executed, no-one quite knows why, maybe to impress on his underlings that he had no hesitation whatsoever about keeping complete control of the empire in his own hands. (An incident which later Christians who had him declared a saint find tricky to explain away.)

The book includes a family tree of the families of Diocletian, Constantine, Valentinian and Theodosius, and I struck out in pencil the name of everyone in them who died an unnatural death (murder, execution, assassination, forced ‘suicide’) and it turns out to be by far the majority. In fact I made a pencil mark in the text wherever someone met with an unnatural death, and there’s one on every page.

One of the clichés of later Byzantine history is the idea that it is dense with convoluted palace politics, plots and poisoning – but this book demonstrates very clearly that this culture was simply a continuation (and maybe an intensification) of established Roman imperial practice. When I was young I think I found all the poison and bloodshed thrilling, but now I find it a depressing indictment of human beings’ endless capacity for cruelty and deceit.

3. Clearer understanding of key events

It’s difficult to pick out themes in a 400-page book so dense with historical incident, but I was grateful to it for giving a detailed account of at least two events which, as a result, I properly understood for the first time: Alaric and the Visigoths’ Sack of Rome (410 AD) and the overthrow of the last Roman Emperor in the West, Romulus Augustulus (476 AD) both of them dates which every ‘schoolboy’ is supposed to know by heart, though I wonder how many contemporary schoolboys have heard of them.

The sack of Rome The thing to grasp about the barbarian leaders is that they rarely wanted to seize or overthrow Imperial power: they generally wanted recognition and high rank within the Roman system, and land for their followers to settle on. Thus the king of the Visigoths, Alaric I, began his career leading his Goths within the Roman army. In 394 Alaric led a Gothic force of 20,000 that helped the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius defeat the Frankish usurper Arbogast at the Battle of Frigidus. Disappointed at getting little recognition or reward, Alaric left the Roman army and marched toward Constantinople. He was confronted by Roman forces so decoyed southward into Greece, where he sacked Piraeus and destroyed Corinth, Megara, Argos, and Sparta. A bit belatedly, the Eastern emperor Flavius Arcadius appointed Alaric magister militum (master of the soldiers) in Illyricum and Alaric stopped his rampage. Like Attila and Odoacer after him, the ravaging was by way of negotiating strategy.

In 401 Alaric invaded Italy but was defeated by the Roman general (of Vandal descent) Stilicho at Pollentia in 402. A second invasion that same year also ended in defeat at the Battle of Verona, though Alaric forced the Roman Senate to pay a large subsidy to the Visigoths. Stilicho had emerged during this decade as the most powerful man in Italy, which is why it was a fatal mistake when the Western Emperor Flavius Honorius had Stilicho and his family executed, on trumped up charges of making secret deals with Alaric.

Honorius then unleashed the Romans’ pent-up frustration with the way their country was held to ransom by so many barbarian tribes in a co-ordinated massacre of tens of thousands of wives and children of the foederati (allied) Goths serving in the Roman military. As a result some 30,000 Gothic soldiers defected to Alaric who now marched on Rome to avenge their murdered families.

In classic style, Alaric sacked Aquileia and Cremona and ravaged towns along the Adriatic Sea before arriving to lay siege to Rome in September 408. Alaric blocked off all points of entry to the city which quickly began to starve. As Christmas approached the first cases of cannibalism were reported. Finally the Senate granted him a substantial subsidy of (bought him off with) 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 of silver, 4,000 silk tunics, 3,000 hides of dyed scarlet and 3,000 pounds of pepper.

Alaric ended the siege of Rome and marched north to Rimini where he met envoys from Honorius and demanded the Roman territories of Venetia, Dalmatia and Noricum in which to settle, plus subsidies to feed his people in exchange for which Alaric pledged loyalty to the emperor and to defend Italy against any enemy. These were generous terms but Honorius refused them. Alaric reduced his request to just the (ravaged) province of Noricum on the Danube. Once again Honorius refused and so, incensed, Alaric marched his army back to Rome and invested it for a second time, making clear that his aim wasn’t the sack of the city but the removal of Honorius.

The Senate quickly agreed, opened the gates to Alaric and he entered Rome in peace. The Senate declared Honorius (who all this time had been holed up in well-defended Ravenna in the north) no longer emperor and replaced him with the Prefect of the city, one Priscus Attalus, who promptly appointed Alaric his magister militum. The first thing on Alaric’s mind was the control of North Africa – the breadbasket of Rome – by Heraclian. Alaric wanted to despatch an army to Africa to seize the province. But Attalus insisted on diplomacy and sent an envoy to Heraclian who was promptly murdered. Alaric badgered Attalus who refused to give a Goth army permission to invade a Roman province, and the Senate backed him up. At this point Honorius, who had been sending panic-stricken letters to Attalus asking to please be left with control of Ravenna, received an unexpected boost in the shape of ships from Constantinople carrying some 40,000 troops sent by the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II. Emboldened he announced his intent of marching against the Visigoths.

Infuriated at being blocked and threatened at every turn Alaric summoned Attalus to Rimini and ritually stripped him of the imperial diadem and purple cloak. Then he marched on Rome for the third and final time determined to make his supremacy and will absolutely clear. After a brief siege he forced a gate and entered Rome, giving his troops license for three days of looting and pillaging.

Although the Visigoths plundered Rome, they treated its inhabitants humanely and burned only a few buildings. They were –  it is worth emphasising, as were most of the so-called barbarians – actually devout Christians themselves, albeit of a variety – Arianism – which had been declared heretical in the previous century.

(Arius was an Alexandrian priest who lived from around 250 to 336. He took Jesus’s teachings that he was the son of God, literally, asserting that the son of God was created by the Father and was therefore neither ‘coeternal’ nor ‘consubstantial’ with the Father. This makes Jesus a more human figure, and his story more tragic, but fatally undermines the orthodox doctrine of the equality of the three persons of the Trinity. The orthodox view that the three parts of the Trinity are eternally co-valent and consubstantial was hammered out at the Councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451), and hence is sometimes referred to as Nicene or Chalcedonian Christianity. Early missionaries to the barbarian tribes beyond the border happen to have been Arians and so converted the majority of the tribes to this ‘heresy’. When the Arian barbarians overran parts of the Western Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries, they brought their Arian beliefs with them, though they were generally tolerant of the Nicene inhabitants of the lands they conquered. It has been suggested that, for some time – centuries – the Arian heresy helped differentiate between Gothic overlords and Roman inhabitants. Whether this was so or not, the strength of the orthodoxy of the church of Rome and the Eastern Empire eventually overcame Arianism and the last Arian kings in Europe were Grimwald, King of the Lombards 662 to 671, and his young son, Garibald, 671.)

After pillaging Rome, Alaric marched his men south, planning to take ship to Africa and deal once and for all with Heraclian in order to gain control of Italy’s grain supply. At Cosenza he was taken with a fever and was dead in a few days.

So:

a) The sack was the result of a very complicated series of diplomatic and military manoeuvres, involving, by the end, three emperors – Honorius, Theodosius II, Attalus – as well as the military strong-men Stilicho and Heraclian.

b) To a surprising extent the sack was the Romans’ own fault:

  • the stupidity of Honorius in executing the only man who could hold Alaric at bay – Stilicho
  • Honorius’s refusal to grant Alaric’s demands when they were eminently reasonable
  • the refusal of Attalus or the Senate to let Alaric sail off to Africa (which would, at the very least, have got him off Italian soil and bought them time)

c) All of which underscores a remark Norwich makes somewhere in the first half about the quality of the Roman army. The Empire equalled the army: strong army, strong empire. None of the books I’m reading on the subject really tackle this issue head on. Why did the Roman army deteriorate? Why by the 390s and 400s was it incapable of confronting and beating Alaric? The same but worse occurred during the time of Attila the Hun (430s to 450s) when all the Roman army could do was shadow Attila’s rampages. What changed between, say, 200 AD and 400 AD which made the Roman Army so fatefully weak?

(As a footnote, Alaric’s death so soon after sacking Rome became a useful tool to later protectors of the Holy City. Priscus reports that when Pope Leo I rode out to meet Attila the Hun who was rampaging south to take Rome in 452, the superstitious barbarian only had to be told/reminded of the fate of Alaric to decide to call off his assault.)

Alaric and the Visigoths plunder Rome in 410 AD

Alaric and the Visigoths plunder Rome in 410 AD

The overthrow of ‘the last Roman Emperor’ (in the West) The last generation of emperors in the West make for a sorry story as one barbarian overlord after another sponsored puppet rulers in what had become the Western Imperial capital, at Ravenna, in north-east Italy. In 474 the Eastern Emperor Leo I appointed Julius Nepos Western Roman Emperor. This was to replace the ruling emperor Glycerius, who Leo regarded as a usurper. (Julius is called ‘nepos’ (nephew) because he was married to Leo’s wife’s niece. Handy.)

When Julius arrived in Italy in June 474 Glycerius promptly surrendered, was spared by Julius and packed off to become bishop of Salona. But Julius only ruled over what was left of the Western Empire (now more or less reduced to mainland Italy) for less than a year. In 475 he appointed magister militum (leader of soldiers) the experienced general, Orestes. (Orestes in fact has a fascinating backstory: having been born and bred in Pannonia, he remained when the territory was ceded to Attila the Hun in the 440s and found himself appointed Attila’s secretary and ambassador.) This turned out to be a mistake, for in August 475 Orestes marched on the Western capital, Ravenna, prompting Julius to flee to Dalmatia (modern Yugoslavia) where he carried on regarding himself as the legal emperor until (typically for the times) he was assassinated in 480.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Orestes didn’t claim the imperial crown but appointed his 12-year-old son Romulus, emperor. Technically this gave him the title Romulus Augustus, which cynics at the time changed to Romulus Augustulus ie ‘little Augustus’. The Eastern emperor Zeno, unsurprisingly, refused to recognise Romulus – although there was little he could do about the situation, since he was engaged in a full-scale civil war with his own Eastern rival, Basiliscus.

Romulus himself ‘ruled’ ie did what his father told him, for just ten months, for Orestes turned out to be as unlucky / stupid as Julius. The army he had led to Ravenna mostly consisted of barbarian mercenaries. When Orestes refused their demands for up to a third of the land area of Italy to settle in, they simply mutinied against him, appointing the Germanic Odoacer their new king, on August 23, 476.

Odoacer led the barbarian army on a rampage through every town and village in northern Italy, pursuing Orestes to Pavia, where the bishop gave him sanctuary, but he had to flee again when the Germans broke through the city defenses and ravaged the church, razing many of the city buildings to the ground.

Orestes rallied the remnants of a Roman army and engaged the barbarians outside Piacenza, where the Romans were slaughtered, Orestes captured and executed. A few weeks later Ravenna was captured and Romulus Augustus was deposed. Legend has it that Odoacer’s heart was softened when he had the young boy brought before him, so he spared his life and sent him into permanent retirement in the Campania. Nothing more is known of lucky Romulus Augustulus. More interestingly – and counter-intuitively, but something which these barbarian conquerors repeatedly did – Odoacer was then happy to submit to the authority of the Eastern Emperor Zeno, asked to be granted the official status of patrician of Rome and to rule as administrator of Italy in Zeno’s name. Although we see them, with hindsight, fatally undermining Roman authority, the major players of the time all still saw themselves acting within the Empire and seeking ultimate authority for their rule from it.

(History doesn’t stop. The overthrow of Romulus looks to us like a hugely significant event, but the rulers of the day carried on fighting each other as if nothing had changed. Julius Nepos continued styling himself the Augustus of the West from his stronghold in Dalmatia, and when he was murdered in 480 Odoacer used it as a pretext to invade Dalmatia and punish the murderers (and annex the territory). Odoacer then foolishly decided to ally with the Eastern general, Illus, in the latter’s attempt to overthrow the Eastern Emperor Zeno in 484. Zeno retaliated by appointing the Ostrogoth ruler, Theoderic the Great, who had been menacing Constantinople, King of Italy, thus motivating him to attack Odoacer. Theoderic invaded Italy in 489 and by August 490 had captured almost the entire peninsula, forcing Odoacer to take refuge in Ravenna. The city surrendered on 5 March 493. Theoderic invited Odoacer to a banquet of reconciliation and promptly killed him by, according to our sources, walking up to him at the banquet table, drawing his sword and cleaving his body in two, from collarbone to waist. And thus perished the man who showed mercy to Romulus.)

Conclusion

These two stories (just two from hundreds of similar events) give a good flavour of this long, beautifully written history, which can only be described as ‘entertaining’ if you find the relentless description of high-level power politics, military strategy, court intrigue and endless battles entertaining. I do, but I can also see how the inexorable saga of conspiracy, war and violent death on almost every page could put a lot of people off.

The Biggest Idea

In the 670s a Muslim fleet under the Caliph Muawiya laid siege to Constantinople and tried for five years to break into the city from the sea. They persisted despite repeated Greek counter-attacks which deployed the secret weapon known as Greek fire (a kind of napalm). After five long years of losses, the Caliph admitted defeat and ordered his fleet home (and the fleet was caught in a storm on the way, and further depleted). At the same time his land forces had been harassed by the so-called Mardaites, freebooting Christian marauders who spread south from Syria to wage a relentless guerrilla war against Muslim forces, as far south as Jerusalem. Demoralised by the combination of these setbacks, in 679 the Caliph accepted defeat and made terms with the Emperor Constantine IV, handing back the Aegean islands he had seized and agreeing to pay the emperor an annual tribute.

Thus, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV had halted the Muslim progress into Europe, the first real setback in the hitherto unstoppable spread of Muslim forces. It was a decisive moment, and in reward he received grateful thanks from many former enemies: the Khagan of the Avars, the Slav tribal leaders in the Balkans, the Lombard and Frankish princes of the West. By holding the line at Constantinople Constantine IV ensured the Muslims would only be able to enter Europe via Spain, forcing them to stretch their lines of communication to breaking point along the whole north coast of Africa, then up across Iberia so that their progress via this route would be halted at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. These far-off and, to most people unknown, events had vast historical significance. As Norwich comments:

Had they captured Constantinople in the seventh century rather than the fifteenth, all Europe – and America – might be Muslim today. (p.325)

Related links

Other early medieval reviews

Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire by Niall Ferguson (2004)

The United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 as a result of the 9/11 attacks. It invaded Iraq in March 2003 in response to the alleged threat of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

These acts prompted an unprecedented flood of articles in newspapers and magazines, TV documentaries, conferences, seminars, papers and hundreds of books speculating whether America was now, finally, at last revealed to be an ’empire’ with nakedly ‘imperial’ ambitions.

British economic historian Niall Ferguson entered the debate with a Channel 4 TV series and book on the subject – which also neatly complemented the C4 TV series and book he had published in 2003 about the British Empire.

When I bought it I thought, from its subtitle (‘The rise and fall of the American empire’), that it would be a history, maybe a chronological account of the growth of American power.

But it isn’t. Even more so than the British Empire book, this book is really an extended argument with historical examples. It is a polemical interpretation of history, written with a very strong point of view, which starts in the present day – the Preface, written in 2005 is full of references to contemporary events in Iraq, to ongoing debates in the media, policy statements by the Administration, learned articles etc – and, no matter what incidents from the past it describes, Ferguson is always emphasising their relevance to the present situation.

However, time has a way of advancing at a steady pace: it is now 12 years since the book (11 years since the preface) were published, and we have the usual benefit of hindsight, both on America’s strategic decisions, and on Ferguson’s interpretation of them.

The book can therefore be read and enjoyed on at least three levels:

  1. As a snapshot of contemporary thinking about US policy in Afghanistan/Iraq in 2003/4
  2. As an extended argument about the role of the US in global affairs, with which to agree or disagree
  3. For the illustrations of that argument which include a succession of fascinating accounts of episodes from US history which shed light on the empire thesis (and other things too)

An empire in denial

Ferguson’s thesis can be stated very simply: the US is an empire; despite all protests to the contrary, it always has been an empire; in fact it would be a good thing for the world as a whole if the leaders of America just accepted the fact and began to act more like an empire; instead of which America’s rulers have a long tradition of intervening for short periods in foreign countries, then withdrawing in a hurry and letting them revert to chaos/civil war/instability. Ferguson’s thesis is that Americans should stay in the countries they invade, and be prepared to pay the cost.

The way he puts it is that America is an ’empire in denial’. In reach and power, in its conviction of being a torch bearer of civilised values – freedom, democracy, free market capitalism etc – in the sheer fact that its armed forces outnumber the next ten or so nations’ armies put together, and that it has military bases in half the nations of the earth – America is an Empire in everything but name.

The book is – maybe intentionally – comic in the way it lines up quotes from US presidents and senators and commentators from the late 19th century onwards, all saying the US is not an empire and carrying on vowing it does not have imperial ambitions etc, through the Second World War – notably the fiercely anti-imperial Franklin Roosevelt, who played a large role in undermining the British Empire – and right up to the present day, asserting, ‘No empire, no way!’

Then follows all these denials with an account of

a) how America was created ie by killing Indians, seizing territory, fighting neighbouring countries, buying land
b) once the continental boundaries were settled, reaching out to acquire colonies in the Pacific and Caribbean, by sometimes pretty underhand dealing
c) the growing chorus of commentators who, especially after WW2, simply recognise US behaviour for what it’s been – stepping in to fill the power vacuum left by the bankruptcy of the British Empire and feeling free to intervene in conflicts anywhere in the world to influence them in the ‘right’ direction. The American direction. Korea, Suez, Iran, Vietnam, Iraq.

Not new

That America is an empire is not a new thought, in fact it is a cliché of our times. You only have to Google ‘American empire’ to be appalled at the amount of learned ink and journalistic hype which has been spilt debating the point back and forth for the past 15 years. Ferguson claims that what makes him stand out from this vast sea of discourse is that he thinks an American Empire would be a good thing, and that the Americans, alas, don’t go far enough. For Ferguson the Americans have, like it or not, become the world’s main guarantor of peace, liberty, democracy, capitalism and free trade – but are continually shooting themselves in the foot by not doing it properly.

For my money what makes Ferguson stand out from the scrum of people in this arena is that 1. very few of the political commentators have the breadth and depth of knowledge he brings to bear as a professional economic historian – and 2. not many of his fellow historians have a taste for writing such partisan and polemical pieces with such verve and confidence.

Structure

In the introduction Ferguson outlines the structure of the book in eight chapters:

  1. The imperial origins of the USA ie the way the Founding Fathers themselves (surprisingly) used the term ’empire’, and the way the young nation bought, fought and conquered its way across the continent and beyond.
  2. A fascinating account of America’s successes (Hawaii and Puerto Rico) and failures (the rest of central America and the Caribbean): drawing the conclusion that it has been most successful where it directly and permanently intervenes and governs, and repeatedly failed when it intervenes to overthrow a dictator and quickly withdraws (Panama, Nicaragua), leaving the fundamental problems of poor governance unchanged.
  3. Showing how 9/11 represented a culmination of decades of mismanagement of the Middle East and of growing Islamic terrorist organisations which the US did little to tackle.
  4. How the failure of the UN in the Yugoslav civil wars and the Rwanda genocide showed the US it could and should go it alone, proving that all decisive action in the post-Cold War world requires is a ‘coalition of the willing’; and how the disasters of small-scale US intervention in Somalia and Lebanon suggested that the US should only intervene in situations with a clear end-goal and then only with overwhelming force.
  5. Assesses the costs and benefits of America establishing a true empire, ie permanently occupying failed states.
  6. This is a detailed essay which could easily stand alone, assessing whether the US has the capacity, know-how or staying power to remain in Iraq long enough to build a viable nation state, cheekily comparing its quick-fix approach to the history of Britain’s long stay in Egypt. The British officially stated no fewer than 66 times that they would clear out of Egypt, starting within weeks of their unofficial ‘conquest’ in 1882; whereas they ended up staying for 72 years, Ferguson controversially argues, much to Egypt’s economic and legal benefit. Another element in America’s weakness is the reluctance of Americans to serve abroad. Most get postings to the Middle East for a year and are soon back home among the hamburgers and soccer moms. This makes you appreciate rather more the selflessness of lots of British administrators who devoted their entire lives to ‘serving’ in often very remote parts of the world, with little thanks at home or from the native peoples, stiffened by the ethos of service and self-sacrifice which had been drummed into them in Britain’s public schools. There is simply no equivalent in American culture.
  7. This chapter also feels like a stand-alone essay on the simple question: Is the European Union a viable new ’empire’ capable of asserting western values through unified force in a way which can challenge the United States? Well, No. Ferguson very thoroughly demolishes the idea and confirms one’s sense that the EU is a ramshackle bureaucracy dedicated to guaranteeing its employees a fabulous lifestyle and protecting French farmers, while completely failing to act decisively in any kind of emergency, from the Yugoslav civil wars to the the current Refugee Crisis via its wise and fair treatment of the defaulting Greeks.
  8. Many critics and commentators predict the American Empire will be brought low by what Paul Kennedy called ‘imperial overstretch’ and go bankrupt like the great empires before it. Ferguson brings his grasp of historical economics to bear to argue that the real threats to the US economy are in fact internal. The largest elements in the US budget are not military but the vast obligations of Social Security (pensions) and Medicare. Politically, the threat is not of over-stretch but of over-hasty withdrawal of forces form trouble zones, under pressure from domestic public opinion and ever-recurrent US isolationism. Once again, leaving the job half-done.

And this concern does seem to have been justified. As the Wikipedia article on the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq makes clear, President Bush held out against a Congress and public opinion calling for the troops to come home from 2007 onwards, signing an agreement that the last ones would leave in December 2011. Since that time the main development in the region has of course been the popular uprising in neighbouring Syria against President Bashar al-Assad, which led to a civil war, which, along with a power vacuum in northern Iraq, led to the swift emergence of a new force, Islamic State.

Whether the rise of ISIL could have been prevented by maintaining US forces in Iraq is something historians will debate forever. How many forces, exactly? And for how long?

Insights and stories

As with Empire, a lot of the basic story is familiar, especially the recaps of the disasters of the 1990s (Yugoslavia, Rwanda) and the detailed account of the diplomatic pussy-footing to get the UN resolutions and allies needed to invade Iraq. I feel like I’ve read hundreds of articles and books on the subject.

By contrast, his chapters on the early history of the American republic, and then its interventions in Latin America, the Philippines, Hawaii etc, were mostly new to me. Certainly the way they are interpreted in light of Ferguson’s thesis – ie from its earliest days the US has been imperial in ambition, and that its best interventions have been the most complete and overt ones – were new and thought-provoking.

  • The Louisiana Purchase (1803)
  • War of 1812 I hadn’t quite realised the States started this war simply to grab land, nor that the small British forces fought back so effectively that they pushed the Yanks back to Washington where – in the war’s most famous incident – they burned down the White House. Nor that the war helped create a sense of Canadian nationhood among the people that pushed back the Americans.
  • Mexican-American War (1846-48) resulting from the US annexation of Texas and leading to the acquisition of more land ie southern California and New Mexico.
  • Overthrow of Hawaii’s rulers I didn’t know how completely imperial the seizure of Hawaii was, with the overthrow of the native royal family by a small group of white businessmen. The reluctance of the authorities back in Washington to back the obvious greed and illegality of the men on the spot is like many episodes in the British Empire, where the central government was in fact more protective of native rights than the self-interested businessmen who behaved so high-handedly.
  • Spanish-American War (1898) On a trumped-up pretext the US invaded and annexed Cuba from Spain.
  • Philippine–American War (1899-1902) As part of the Spanish-American war, the US seized the Philippine Islands from Spain, on the other side of the world. Military victory was straightforward but followed by a prolonged counter-insurgency which the Americans tried to solve by driving the general population into concentration camps and shooting everyone found outside the camps without identification. Guerrilla war phase
  • Panama In the early 1900s the US supported Panama independence from Colombia so that it could instantly sign a treaty with the new ‘country’ to build, own and run the Panama Canal in perpetuity.
  • Puerto Rico is currently ‘an unincorporated US territory’. Reading the Wikipedia article about its ‘acquisition’ by the USA gives powerful evidence of the imperialist mind-set and language used by American leaders at the turn of the century.

And so on…

Is it or isn’t it?

So is America an empire? The obvious answer is, Who cares?

Well, who does care is the thousands of analysts, pundits, professors and think tank geeks, military experts and geopolitical strategists, who are paid to write and debate this kind of question ad nauseam. For them it means publication, reputation, careers to be made debating the finer points of the matter, creating subtler and subtler definitions of empire, making more and more ornate comparisons with previous empires, publishing sophisticated and thought-provoking prognostications, most of which turn out to be wildly wrong (eg Paul Kennedy’s predictions that the American Empire would soon collapse in his popular best-seller The Rise and Fall of The Great Powers of 1987).

A slightly more engaged answer would be: Since I have just read the views on the matter of some 50 people, from various Founding Fathers, through politicians and commentators in the 19th century, the Great War, the Second World War and right up to the present day, who themselves disagree wildly as to what an empire is and whether America is or isn’t one – how can I reasonably be expected to decide?

From the evidence in this book, the United States both is and isn’t an empire: it is by virtue of its military power and reach and it has a track record of annexing land (in the 19th century) and military intervention in other countries (in the 20th). BUT, as Ferguson points out, it rarely stays. It is obviously NOT in the business of seizing new colonies and permanently inhabiting them, as the Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese, British, Germans, Belgians or Russians did with their empires. Hence: the US is and isn’t an ’empire’.

Whether any of this ocean of interpretation makes a blind bit of difference to the actual course of events, to the working out of US geopolitical strategy, seems unlikely. American politicians are trapped in the tight cycle of elections to the Senate, Congress and Presidency, which tend to prevent any long-term thinking and favour melodramatic gestures and simple-minded sound-bites (eg Donald Trump). From one point of view it was a triumph that President George W Bush managed to keep US troops in Iraq for so long, before giving in to domestic pressure, bringing them home, and letting the country collapse into fragments and then fall prey to a murderous new movement, ISIS.

Thirty years ago I attended a seminar which featured Ian Jack of the Observer and other foreign correspondents and experts debating whether Imperialism should be revived, whether the West should intervene – mainly in Africa – to overthrow brutal dictators or help collapsing states, and run them properly. Everyone there – white, middle-class intellectuals all – agreed it was obviously the best solution for a number of pitifully poor countries. But also agreed it was impossible in practice – because of the fierce opposition there’d be from the populations of the recolonised countries, from the UN and international community, from the surrounding nations and related bodies like the Organisation of African Unity, and from the Western countries’ own populations. Faced with opposition on all fronts, the idea of recolonisation was a non-starter: the West would have to resign itself to working through the various UN agencies, the IMF or World Bank, and its armies of NGOs and aid charities to make the best of a bad job. Direct intervention to ‘save’ collapsing or dictator-led countries could never again be a long-term possibility. Failed and chaotic states are on their own and can never again expect to be taken over and helped to rebuild.

Nothing I read in Ferguson’s book contradicts those conclusions.

Criticism

The most obvious criticism of this book, as of its predecessor, Empire, is that it gives little or no place for human experience, for the psychology of colonisation and oppression. An imperial colony’s legal system may be updated, its tax regime overhauled and its GDP improved by imperial control – and Ferguson gives plenty of examples of this in a wide range of countries, run by the British or Americans – but he takes hardly any account of people’s feelings, or of the cultural impact of being ruled over – and more or less overtly patronised by – an alien elite. For this absence of feeling, of compassion maybe, Ferguson has been criticised, especially by writers who come from former colonies and who have experienced the humiliations of empire.

My view would be that this high-level, heartless approach is hardly unique to Ferguson: all economists are like that. While Britain’s state industries were shut down, while the mining communities were thrown on the scrapheap during the Thatcher years, generations of culture were trashed, alcoholism and suicide rates soared among unemployed men, the Financial Times and its ilk were full of reports by economists discussing theories of money supply, the finer aspects of ‘Monetarism’, and the balance of payments deficit as if there was no connection between the graphs and pie charts and ruined lives. Or read how the plight of Greece was described in the Financial Times.

Economics isn’t called ‘the dismal science’ for nothing. Its fundamental strategy is to drain the humanity and life out of any situation and to reduce it to bone-dry, bloodless and – quite often, it turns out, laughably unreliable – numbers.

At least, unlike most other economic historians’, Ferguson’s books are thought-provoking, crisply written and hugely entertaining.

Related links

Bibliography

1995 Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897–1927
1998 The Pity of War
1998 The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild
1999 Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals
2001 The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700–2000
2003 Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World
2004 Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire
2005 1914
2006 The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred
2008 The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World
2010 High Financier: The Lives and Times of Siegmund Warburg
2011 Civilization: The West and the Rest
2013 The Great Degeneration
2015 Kissinger: 1923–1968: The Idealist

‘The Crusades’ from A History of Christianity by Paul Johnson (1976)

The crusades were not missionary ventures but wars of conquest and primitive experiments in colonisation; and the only specific Christian institutions they produced, the three knightly orders, were military. (p.241)

Paul Johnson’s magisterial History of Christianity is divided into eight parts.

  • Part One describes the life of Jesus and, following his execution, the development of a ‘Christian’ theology and the spread of Christianity during the years of repression by the Roman Empire.
  • Part Two ‘From Martyrs to Inquisitors’ (250-450) describes the changing fortunes of the faith, as it morphs from a banned underground movement into the officially sanctioned state religion of the Roman Empire. By 400 it is firmly enough established to begin to ban and persecute pagans and non-believers in its own right.
  • Part Three ‘Mitred Lords and Crowned Ikons (450-1054)’ covers the Dark Ages, focusing on the achievement of Charlemagne in establishing order across a wide expanse of northern Europe, wholeheartedly accepting Christianity and becoming an active evangelist for it.

Part Four, ‘The Total Society and its Enemies (1054 – 1500)’

This section covers a myriad historical developments but grouped under one Big Idea: From the later 11th century through to around 1500 the papacy set out to systematically aggregate religious and secular power to itself.

Charlemagne (king of the Franks from 768 to 814) had expected his bishops, and even the pope himself, to obey his commands. He found a subordinate Church an invaluable aid in establishing law and order in 9th century Europe.

But around the time of the Norman Conquest the papacy began to flex its muscles, and successive popes tried to seize the upper hand against secular rulers, not least by asserting the Church’s control over every aspect of secular life. The body of church law expanded exponentially. The types of monastic order and mendicant friars burgeoned: Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans and so on. Clerics asserted a dizzying array of taxes, especially the hated ‘mortuary’ tax i.e. they wouldn’t bury you unless your family handed over a percentage of your valuables to the church.

Something similar happened with the concept of ‘indulgences’, which were first issued for pilgrims who attended a one-off jubilee in Rome in 1300. You bought them and – if you attended certain ceremonies, pilgrimages, feasts etc, they got you out of purgatory early. The 1300 Jubilee brought in so much money for the Church that the next pope declared there’d be another jubilee in 1350. Soon they were being declared every ten years. Eventually you could pay someone to do the pilgrimage for you, just like you could pay people to do your penances and pay clerics to sing masses for you after you were dead. Johnson calls it the growth of ‘mechanical’ Christianity.

Johnson gives countless examples of the invasive growth of church administration: For example, in the 10th century the Pope had had only a hazy idea where Britain even was; but by the 13th century we find the Pope intervening between two bishops in East Anglia squabbling about who benefits from the tithes of a local parish church.

But as the Total Church pushed its tentacles into every aspect of society, it planted the seeds of opposition. Johnson records various early appearances of anti-clerical complaints and these grew into a crescendo when the papacy as an institution left Rome altogether to relocate to Avignon in 1309.

To all intelligent observers it became clear the church was ceasing to be a spiritual body and becoming a well-run multinational corporation. The second half of the chapter details the ways the Church’s aspiration to ‘Total Control of Western Society’ generated increasing criticism and opposition. He examines the various movements for reform, including the intellectual ‘Humanist’ movement. This was just beginning to suggest the possibility of sophisticated reform within the established Church, when its subtle suggestions and ecumenical spirit were swept away in the tsunami of Martin Luther’s rhodomontades and the immense upheaval of the Reformation (started 1517).

The Crusades

It is in this overarching context that Johnson devotes a dozen or so pages to the Crusades. His main points are:

Early Christians viewed all violence as abhorrent, preferring death and martyrdom to armed resistance. Here, as in so many other issues, it was St Augustine who gave Christianity its baleful turn. He reasoned that men fight anyway, so a complete and realistic theology must take account of this fact, give in to human nature, and define under what circumstances violence, fighting and war are justified. Augustine’s writings gave birth to the long tradition of theologising about the ‘Just War’. These arguments became elaborated, along with the rest of ‘mechanical’ medieval theology, as successive popes developed more and more casuistical arguments: for example claiming that anyone dying in battle in defence of the faith would go to heaven; then would be defined as a ‘martyr’; and then would have all their sins forgiven. And obviously, the most just of just wars would be not against other Christian kings, but against either heretics and blasphemers (as defined, of course, by the pope), or against the joint enemy, the infidel hordes who had swept across the Mediterranean in the 7th and 8th centuries.

As to this Muslim world, Johnson shows in convincing detail how Islam had succeeded in sweeping through the Middle East and the North African coast largely because of the hopeless divisions among innumerable forms of North African Christianity – there were Nestorians and Pelagians and Arians who all accused each other of being ‘heretics’ with such bitterness that some openly greeted the new Muslim rulers, preferring to be ruled by infidels than by ‘heretics’.

Islam’s success was because, as a theology, it is simple and easy to grasp: there is one God and Mohammed is his Prophet. That’s it. Compare and contrast with the scores of fiendishly subtle and complex heresies which early Christianity threw up in droves, particularly around the two sore points of the exact nature of Christ’s manhood and godhood – and the precise relationship of the three elements of the ‘Trinity’. Christian heresy lost Africa to Islam.

Origins of the Crusades

Those in the region who didn’t convert were treated well. Islam proved tolerant and permissive of other beliefs. But by the 1000s a storm was brewing in the West. Johnson identifies three factors:

  1. Small-scale wars against Muslims were being pioneered in Spain, half of which was, of course, in the control of Muslim kings during this period. In 1063 King Ramiro I of Aragon was murdered by a Muslim and Pope Alexander II offered an indulgence (i.e. forgiveness of all sins; go direct to heaven) to anyone taking arms to revenge this crime. (N.B. It was the same Pope Alexander II who gave his blessing to William the Bastard’s conquest of England a few years later.) In 1073 his successor Pope Gregory VII helped to organise an army to fight against the Muslims in Spain, promising any Christian soldier that he could keep any ‘infidel’ land that he could seize.
  2. A Frankish tradition dating back to Charlemagne’s times had it that the Carolingian monarchs had a special duty to protect the Holy Places in Palestine and keep pilgrimage routes across Europe to them safe and secure. There were three well-marked land routes as well as the more expensive sea routes to the Holy Land. Many Holy orders maintained hospices along the route. Sometimes huge numbers of pilgrims did the journey and, by and large, the Muslim authorities treated them peaceably. (For example, in 1064-6 some 7,000 Germans, some heavily armed, travelled to Jerusalem and back unhindered.)
  3. What prompted the synthesis of the above two notions – the idea of taking military action against the infidel along with the idea of seizing control of the Holy Land – was the population explosion of the 11th century. By the 1000s, after centuries of chaos, most of Europe was settled and under the legalised control of strong rulers, themselves backed by the authority of a resurgent Catholic Church. Agricultural land across the continent began to be exploited to the maximum of the available technology. The Crusades can thus be interpreted as a bid for Lebensraum for a booming population. This explains why, along with the knightly enterprises we mostly read about, went various less romantic movements by the poor: like the 20,000 peasants led by Peter the Hermit, or the Peasants Crusade, or the Children’s Crusade and so on. Many of the nobles who flourished on Crusade – like Godfrey de Bouillon, who emerged as leader of the First Crusade (1096-99) – were junior members of the aristocracy, often left landless by elder brothers. To these ambitious younger sons the crusades offered huge opportunities to create and run their own fiefdoms, kingdoms, empires.

In a sweeping statement typical of his confident handling of large perspectives, Johnson says the Crusades, seen as a mass movement of people, stand mid-way between the Germanic migrations of the 4th and 5th centuries which brought the Angles and Saxons to this country, and the great transatlantic migrations of the European poor to America in the 19th century.

Seen from this lofty height, all of History can be summarised in terms of major migrations.

The appalling violence of the Crusades

Like Terry Jones in his book Crusades, Johnson emphasises that the crusades were bad news for Europe’s Jews, sparking waves of anti-Semitic violence, pogroms, murders and massacres.

But then they were bad news for lots of others, not just Muslims, as the crusaders repeatedly massacred everyone they found in foreign towns and cities. Peter the Hermit’s crusade slaughtered everyone they found in the villages around Nicea within the Byzantine Empire. When Jerusalem fell in 1187, the conquering Christians went on a horrifying rampage, murdering everyone they saw, raping women, even nuns, looting everything they could carry, burning everything they couldn’t. In 1101 when the crusaders took Caesarea they rounded up all the Muslims into the Grand Mosque and massacred them all. Same in Beirut. In 1109 Tripoli fell to Genoese sailors who burned down the Banu Ammar library, the largest in the Muslim world. The Frankish crusade to Egypt in 1168 was characterised by massacres wherever these rampaging barbarians went.

As Jones points out, the crusaders hated the Greek Christians of the Byzantine Empire almost as much as the Muslims. When, frustrated and unpaid, the angry crusaders rampaged through Constantinople in 1204 they massacred so many citizens and destroyed so much infrastructure that the city never recovered. What Johnson calls the last of the international crusades in 1365, led by Peter I of Cyprus, resulted in the sacking of the Christian city of Alexandria, when these ‘holy warriors’ killed as many Christians as Muslims or Jews. Once they’d finished slaughtering the inhabitants, the crusaders expelled all Greek clerics from their positions, replacing them with Latin-born bishops, priests etc. Orthodox priests were routinely tortured to reveal the location of hidden treasure, plate or relics. Cultural imperialism has rarely come more naked. The Orthodox empire, from the emperor to the lowest peasant, learned to hate and fear the Latins, the Franks, the Catholics, as devils.

The failure of the Crusades

Johnson brings out a point mostly implicit in Jones’s narrative: that a key reason for the failure of the crusaders was that there just weren’t enough of them. In their cultural imperialism the Pope and clerics forbade the crusaders to intermarry even with the Greeks, let alone the local Muslims or Jews. Therefore the population was dependent on rates of childbirth among the small colonies of pure Wester Christians – which appear to have been pitifully low – or on replenishment from Europe which, despite occasional spurts of enthusiasm, was never continuous enough to supply a stable population.

If it had wanted the Crusader kingdoms to succeed, the Church should have funded mass emigration. It should have set up missionising orders to convert Muslims to the faith and create a native population sympathetic to the colonists. But, as Johnson summarises, in the kind of magisterial judgement which makes his History so stimulating and entertaining to read:

The whole crusading movement was dogged by intellectual bankruptcy. (p.248)

Not enough people, not enough money, not enough knights, not enough soldiers – it’s surprising the crusader kingdom staggered on for as long as it did. By the 13th century there was no longer the same population surplus in Europe which had driven the first crusades -excess peasants tended to drift to the growing and commercially successful towns. Meanwhile, the north German knights were applying crusading techniques more effectively and with much more promise of land and titles against the pagan slavs in Poland, Lithuania etc. And then along came the Black Death in the 1340s, after which there was definitely not a problem of over-population.

The events surrounding the last century of the crusader kingdoms are complex, and involve the complicated interventions of different groups of enemies – the Seljuks, the Mongols, the Mamelukes – but the enterprise was by then bankrupt in every sense.

Conclusions

The Crusades left a sense of loss and nostalgia in the West given to sentimental self-deceit; but led directly to the creation of an embittered and less tolerant Islam, some of whose adherents are still smarting from its humiliations, 800 years later.

The Crusades set a pattern for the blood-thirsty anti-Semitism which was to disfigure parts of ‘Christian’ Europe for centuries to come.

And they established many of the mental, cultural and economic patterns which were to be invoked when the great European colonisations began in the 16th century and which we are still recovering from today.

Related links

More about the crusades

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