Monday, 19 December 2011

1816; the year without a summer

In April 1815 the volcano Tambora, in what is now Indonesia, began to erupt, and continued to do so for several weeks. This was the greatest eruption in recorded history, ten times the magnitude of Krakatoa. Its immediate effects were witnessed by Sir Stamford Raffles, the colonial official who founded the port of Singapore, who was at that time lieutenant-governor of Java. He described three immense columns of flame rising into the sky, detonations loud enough to be heard in Sumatra, 1600 kilometres away, three days of total darkness in Java, rocks as big as his head falling 10 kilometres from the volcano, and nearer the scene, total devastation.

Apart from several thousand immediate casualties, at least 80,000 local people were to die of starvation and disease as ash buried their crops and contaminated their drinking-water. But the impact of Tambora was to be far greater than that. Modern research suggests that at least ten cubic kilometres of material was flung into the atmosphere as the top third of the mountain blew itself off, leaving a gigantic crater.

200 million tons of sulphurous gases from the volcano quickly circled the globe, combining with water in the atmosphere to form droplets of sulphuric acid, blocking out the sunlight and causing a sharp fall in global temperatures over the next couple of years (as much as ten degrees in some places), with disastrous changes in weather conditions. It is possible that the eruption helped cause the unseasonal torrential rain in Belgium in the summer of 1815; reducing the fields to quagmires for the Waterloo campaign and forcing Napoleon to postpone his attack on Wellington’s position till the afternoon, with fatal consequences for himself. But the full effect of Tambora was felt the next year.

1816 was “the year without a summer” in Western Europe and North America. In Canada the ice never melted. There was frost in Connecticut in June, and snow in Quebec, New York state and Maine. Crops failed and livestock died. Things were even worse in Europe. Switzerland experienced its coldest summer for 500 years; in many areas peasants tried to subsist on boiled grass and thousands fled to the towns in search of food. Perhaps 200,000 died of famine all told.

In Britain the end of the Napoleonic wars caused the profound economic dislocation inevitable at the conclusion of long conflicts, with thousands of soldiers demobilised, munitions industries closing, and thus a sudden rise in unemployment. Grain prices had risen to unprecedented heights during the war (a load of wheat cost far more in the Napoleonic wars than in the First World War, even before we allow for inflation over the intervening century!), and after the war prices were kept artificially high by the “Corn Laws” which protected British farmers against cheap imports. Not that there would have been any cheap continental grain available in 1816! The result was several years of hunger and social disturbance, which was met with governmental repression culminating in the notorious “Peterloo massacre” in Manchester in 1819.

In Ireland the potato crop failed two years running, and there was a famine that was a preview of the disasters of the 1840s. A typhus epidemic swept Europe, and a new strain of cholera appeared in India and quickly spread worldwide. In the old school textbooks these years were always labelled the time of “distress and discontent”, but I don’t recall the Tambora eruption ever being mentioned as a contributory factor.

There were even artistic consequences. The lurid skies resulting from the volcano are said to have influenced in Turner’s paintings. Byron, Shelley and his wife were on holiday in Italy, and being confined indoors by the bad weather, occupied their time writing ghost stories. Mary Shelley (the daughter of the radical writer William Godwin and the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft) was inspired to write “Frankenstein”; a not unfitting tribute to this terrible year.

Thursday, 15 December 2011


It always amuses me to think how archaeologists in the distant future would be surprised to discover evidence that the inhabitants of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa celebrated a midsummer festival that featured an elderly gentleman dressed in furs suitable for wintry weather, riding a sleigh pulled by an alien species of deer; when people exchanged cards depicting unseasonal snowy scenes populated by alien fauna and flora. It would not be hard for the archaeologists to deduce that this was clearly a cult imported from the nortern hemisphere, but they might wonder why no attempt had been made to adapt it to local conditions. (My suggestion would be Santa Claus dressed in beach gear, arriving on a surfboard, perhaps with attendant dolphins)

Every year we hear of primary school teachers getting into trouble for telling their little charges that Santa Claus doesn't exist. It think this is quite right: after all, these days Santa Claus is probably the only supernatural being some children are brought up to believe in. He is an ideal icon for the present age; his entire raison d'etre is consumerism (where would shops be without him, and the obligation to buy presents?), and he contains no trace whatsoever of Christianity, being therefore equally suitable in our multi-cultural times for Moslems, Hindus and even atheists. His cult embodies the famous schoolboy definition of faith: believing what we know to be untrue; so adults pretend to believe in Santa Claus for the sake of their children, and the children, once they have reched a certain age, pretend to go along with it.

It is significant that in the old Soviet Union the Communists managed to scap most public aspects of Christmas, but they never managed to abolish Santa Claus, who was reincarnated in the transparently thin disguise of "Grandfather Frost".

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The real Santa Claus

Most people know that Santa Claus is derived from Saint Nicholas, but who exactly was Saint Nicholas, and how did he become the old gentleman with a white beard, dressed in red and white, who appears at Christmas?

Not a great deal is known about Saint Nicholas, apart from the fact that he was a bishop at Myra, in what is now south-western Turkey, in the 4th century A.D. He is supposed to have attended the Council of Nicaea in 325, when several crucial doctrines of the Christian church were established, and it is said that he was so horrified by the beliefs of the arch-heretic Arius (who maintained that God the Son must logically have come later than, and be lesser than, God the Father) that he clouted Arius in the face, but there appears to be no foundation for this story. At any event, by the 6th century Nicholas had become a very popular saint, with several churches dedicated to him, and he became the patron saint of sailors, merchants, pawnbrokers, children and others. Many legends were attached to him, the most famous being as follows:
There was a certain poor man in Myra who had three daughters. This was an affliction to him, because he was too poor to provide them with dowries, which meant no-one would want to marry them, and the only solution he could think of was to sell them as prostitutes. Nicholas got to hear of it, and to save them from this fate he secretly dropped three bags of gold through their window at night, to provide them with the necessary dowries. He thus became associated with the giving of gifts, and his sign was three money-bags, or balls of gold.

But Nicholas is now known as Saint Nicholas of Bari, which is in Apulia in south-eastern Italy, a long way from Myra. How could this be? What happened was that in 1087 the city fathers of Bari decided their city needed a tourist attraction to bring in the punters and raise necessary revenue; and in the Middle Ages this meant the relics of a famous saint. So a party of grave-robbers was sent to Myra, and succeeded in taking Nicholas’s remains from their tomb. The sweet smell that arose from the opened coffin told them that the saint was happy about this! The robbers conveyed his body back to Bari, where it was entombed with great splendour. The whole project was a tremendous success; pious pilgrims flocked to Bari to worship, and the city became immensely prosperous as a result. But the city fathers double-crossed the grave-robbers, and refused to pay them the reward agreed for their work!

But how did Saint Nicholas of Bari become Santa Claus? Nicholas’s feast-day was December 6th, and it became a day for giving presents, so it is easy to see how this was postponed for a few days until Christmas. As for the name: this is Dutch in origin, derived from the early Dutch settlers in New York (originally New Amsterdam), where Saint Nicholas in the local dialect became “Sinte Klaas”. There is no doubt that Santa Claus is an American importation, and did no reach Britain until the late 19th century at the very earliest: there is no trace of him in Charles Dickens, for instance. His reindeer all have German names, and his costume of red robes trimmed with white fur only become standardised in the 20th century. Why red and white? The widely accepted answer is; because they are the Coca-cola colours!

The above picture is an early painting by Raphael, known as the Ansidei altarpiece, which can be seen at the National Gallery in London. The figure on the left is John the Baptist, but the bishop on the right is Saint Nicholas of Bari! This is not Santa Claus as we are used to seeing him!
As they might say on Star Trek: "It's Santa Claus, Jim; but not as we know him!"

Silly Russsian names

In 1895 the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov visited Sakhalin, an island with a very harsh climate north of Japan, which was being used as a settlement of convicts and political exiles. As well as being famous as a dramatist and writer of short stories, Chekhov was a qualified doctor, and he produced a detailed report on the numbers of people living on Sakhalin, their standard of living, working conditions, diets and diseases, as well as observations on the native tribes of Gilyaks and Ainu. He was struck by the peculiar surnames of many of the convicts, and listed the following:-
"Fingerless, Limper, Stomach, Godless, Yawner, Not-remembered, Nameless (several versions of this), Family-forgotten, Buried, River, Grey-mare, Fetter, Behind-walls, Yellow-foot".
One suspects that many of these were nicknames given to a man's serf ancestor by his owner, and others were simply something written down by a court official for a peasant who genuinely didn't know his surname.

An unusual metaphor

A while ago I was in a bar whilst someone was holding forth on the alleged bisexuality of Michael Portillo, a topic much hinted at in the press. One splendid old chap, a retired major I think, overheard this and was moved to ask, "Do you mean to say he's one of these 'round-the-wicket' fellows?". I thought this was such a splendid remark that it merited being preserved.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Jonathon Swift's Writings

In the previous post I attempted to place Swift within the context of his times, especially as regards political events. I would now like to make some comment about some of his writings, and what they reveal about his personality.

Swift was disappointed that his political services to the Tory party were not rewarded with a Bishopric, supposedly because Queen Anne was shocked by the scatological nature of much of his work. It has to be said that Swift, although a most intelligent and learned man, as well as a brilliant writer, would not under any circumstances be allowed to serve as a clergyman nowadays, because he was, by any definition, seriously weird. George Orwell in his essay on Swift calls him a “Tory anarchist”, presumably impotent as far as normal sex is concerned, with an exaggerated horror of human dung. This last characteristic keeps emerging in “Gulliver’s Travels”, as will be mentioned later. It must be left to psychiatrists to speculate how far Swift’s peculiarities can be attributed to the fact that he was an orphan who never knew either of his parents. I want here to outline a few of Swift’s pamphlets as well as his solitary book. (It might be noted that all but one of them were published anonymously or under a pseudonym. The only one which earned any money directly was “Gulliver’s Travels”, which brought Swift £200: approximately ten years’ pay for the average English household at the time)

“A Tale of a Tub”, which is said to have particularly shocked Queen Anne, was written around 1696 but published in 1704. It is a religious allegory, taking the form of a story about a man who has bequeathed his three sons a coat each, on the condition that the garments are left forever unaltered. The coat, of course, represents the Gospel, and the three sons, whose names are Peter (the Roman Catholic church), Jack (the Calvinists) and Martin (the Church of England), inevitably ignore their father’s wishes and subject their coats to unsuitable fashionable changes. As we might have anticipated, Martin comes in for the least degree of criticism, whereas Peter and Jack are roundly mocked and abused.

“An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity” (1708) sees Swift at his most sarcastic and ironic. The result is not only very funny, but curiously contemporary in application. He begins by saying it is clear that nobody believes in Christianity any more, which has been “for some time laid aside by general consent, as utterly inconsistent with all our present schemes of wealth and power”. Political parties nowadays, he says, are motivated purely by personal ambitions rather than by principles. We once suffered from “foolish notions of justice, piety, love of country”, but modern education has ensured “not the least tincture left of those infusions, or strings of those weeds”, so it might be thought that there is now no need to abolish Christianity. But then again, if Christianity is abolished, what will there be for satirists and wits to make fun of? And even worse, he has been reliably informed that if Christianity was ever to be abolished, there might be a fall in share prices on the Stock Exchange! All this goes along with gratuitous asides attacking Jesuits, Quakers, freethinkers and others of his favourite targets

“A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Ireland from being a Burden to their Parents or Country” was written in 1729, very late in Swift’s career. He was over sixty and was no doubt feeling depressed and bitter: his beloved Stella had just died, and his enemies the Whigs seemed permanently entrenched in power in London. He had been exiled in Ireland (“the rat-hole”, he called it) for the past 15 years, but this exile had made him aware of the poverty, misery and exploitation of the country and its peasant population. He had already denounced British policy towards Ireland in his “Drapier’s Letters”; when he had attacked a proposal from a businessman named Wood to issue copper coins for Ireland and thereby make a huge profit. (The scheme was nicknamed “Wood’s ha’pence”, and the patent for it had allegedly been obtained by bribing the mistress of King George I. Swift’s polemic was so vehement that the scheme was abandoned). The “Modest Proposal” is an angry piece, that goes beyond mere irony. In it Swift draws attention to the large number of children in Ireland whose poverty-stricken parents cannot afford to raise them. The solution, he suggests, is cannibalism! A year-old child, he has been informed, will provide very tasty food if sold to the gentry, their skin can make gloves, and his scheme will have the dual advantage of reducing the surplus population (especially of Catholics, who tend to have the most children) and earning their parents the money to pay the rent. This is Swift at his most savage.

Finally, what is there new that can be said about “Gulliver’s Travels”? It is another product of Swift’s later years (published 1726), and reveals many of his obsessions as well as the limitations of his mind. Everyone knows about Gulliver’s first voyage, to the midget kingdoms of Lilliput and Blefuscu (representing England and France). His second voyage takes him to Brobdingnag, the land of giants, his third to Laputa and four other islands, and his fourth to the land of the Houyhnhnms, intelligent horses, who are plagued by filthy, squalid, hairy humanoids called Yahoos. As a climax to this last voyage, Gulliver (i.e. Swift?) realises that he himself is a Yahoo, and is filled with such disgust for the human race that on his return home he cannot bear the company even of his wife and family.
A few general features can be noted. Swift’s horror of human dung is manifested several times. In Lilliput, Gulliver puts out a conflagration in the palace by urinating on it, thereby earning the undying hatred of the Empress. In Laputa he discusses how examination of a man’s excrement might reveal whether he is plotting insurrection, and on his last voyage the Yahoos smother him with their dung. His lack of political imagination is shown by the fact that he cannot imagine any governmental system other than absolute monarchy, entirely dependent on the character of the king and his advisors. In Lilliput and Laputa they are corrupt and stupid, in Brobdingnag and Blefuscu much better. The Houyhnhnms have no government: they live in a Platonic republic taken to its logical extreme, where conformity has become so general that everyone thinks exactly alike and no coercion is ever needed.
Swift cannot envisage any social movement. In Lilliput there is no education provided for the children of cottagers and labourers; “Their business being only to till and cultivate the earth, and therefore their education is of little consequence to the public”. The Houyhnhnms are thoroughbred horses; the lesser breeds of horse (“nags”) act as their servants, and accept their station in life without question. Swift’s upbringing as an orphan make his ideas on education strange. Both the Lilliputians and the Houyhnhnms raise their children on communal lines as outlined in Plato’s “Republic”: the Houyhnhnms show no affection for their colts, and the Lilliputians are forbidden by law to give presents to their children.
Swift is very pessimistic about humanity in general, and believes the human race is degenerating, both morally and physically. The magicians in Glubbdubdrib on Gulliver’s third voyage conjure up the Senate of ancient Rome so that he can compare it with a modern Parliament. “The first seemed to be an assembly of heroes and demigods, the other a knot of pedlars, pickpockets, highwaymen and bullies”. Particularly he hates England under its detested Whig government. After Gulliver has described the English governmental system to the King of Brobdingnag, the King replies, “I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth”. On the island of Balnibarbi on the third voyage there is a strange discourse on how the most innocent of letters can be construed to indicate treasonable intentions, so that we almost seem to be in the midst of Stalin’s purge trials. This was probably provoked by the so-called “Atterbury Plot” of 1722, where a Tory bishop, whom Swift must have known personally, was forced to flee abroad under accusations of treason. In case anyone didn’t get the message, Swift refers to “the kingdom of Tribnia, by the native called Langden ….. where the bulk of the people consisted wholly of discoverers, witnesses, informers, accusers, prosecutors, evidences, swearers”, and the authorities first select their victims and then seize them and manufacture evidence against them. Swift’s readers would hardly need to be great brains to decipher in “Tribnia” and “Langden” anagrams of Britain and England!

Swift was certainly a genius, but he was a twisted and embittered man. What hope did he hold out for the future? None whatsoever, it would appear.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Jonathon Swift and his times

A quick summary of the dates to start with.(The entries marked with an asterisk* refer to Swift in person. Those with quotation marks" refer to his published writings)

1667 *Swift born; an orphan, brought up by his uncle
1686 *Graduates from Trinity College, Dublin
1688 *Leaves for England; enters service of Sir William Temple. The Glorious Revolution: James II deposed, William III King
1690 Battle of the Boyne; defeat of Catholic forces in Ireland
1691 Treaty of Limerick ends Irish war
1692 *M.A., Hertford College, Oxford. *Ordained Anglican priest
1693 National Debt established
1694 *Parish priest at Kilroot, Antrim. Triennial Act. Bank of England chartered
1696 *Returns to Englnd; begins to write many books and pamphlets
1699 *Death of Temple. *Returns to Ireland as vicar of Laracor, Meath
1701 Act of Settlement gives succession to Hanoverians. Death of exiled King James II; Louis XIV recognises his son, James Edward Stuart (The Pretender) as King
1702 Death of William III; accession of Anne. War of Spanish Succession begins: Britain, Austria and Holland against France *Doctor of Divinity from Trinity College, Dublin
1704 Tories sacked from govt. Marlborough-Godolphin-Harley triad in power.
Battle of Blenheim
“Battle of the Books” and “Tale of a Tub”, both written earlier
1706 Battle of Ramillies
1707 Act of Union with Scotland.
*Visit to London to press claims of Irish clergy
1708 Attempted French-Jacobite landing in Scotland. Battle of Oudenarde.
Harley sacked from government. Whig election victory
“Argument Against Abolishing Christianity”
1709 Allied defeat in Spain. Bloodbath at battle of Malplaquet
1710 *Begins to work for Harley. “Journal to Stella. Sacheverall trial. Whig ministers sacked. Harley forms Tory government; wins landslide election
1711 “Conduct of the Allies”. Marlborough dismissed; replaced by Ormonde.
Britain begins to pull out of the war
1713 *Scriblerus Club; with Pope, Gay and Arbuthnot
*Appointed Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin
Peace of Utrecht. Another Tory election win
1714 Tory ministers sacked. Death of Anne; accession of George I
*Returns permanently to Ireland
1715 Jacobite rising
1719 Declaratory Act for Ireland
1720 South Sea Bubble
1722 Atterbury Plot.
1724 “Drapier’s Letters”, attacking proposal known as ‘Wood’s Ha’pence’
1726 “Gulliver’s Travels”
1728 *Death of Stella
1729 “A Modest Proposal …”
1742 *Suffers a stroke; health never recovers
1745 *Swift dies

Jonathon Swift was born in Dublin in 1667. He was an orphan child, who would never have known either of his parents, but was fortunate enough to be brought up by an uncle, who financed his education at Trinity College Dublin, an entirely Anglican institution which was the only university in Ireland. In those days, the only way a young man of abilities but no money could fulfil his ambitions would be to enter the church and attach himself to a great man. Many did both, since most church patronage was controlled by the great nobility; and this was the path followed by Swift. He left Ireland in 1688, thus avoiding the violent conflicts there over the next few years, graduated from Oxford University, and was ordained a Church of England minister. He also joined the service of Sir William Temple, a retired diplomat with contacts at the very highest levels: through him, Swift was even able to meet the new King, William III. Equally important to Swift on a personal level was his position of tutor to a young girl called Esther Johnson, the fatherless daughter of a servant in Temple’s household. They remained the closest of friends for the next forty years: Swift called her “Stella” and wrote to her incessantly. There are even stories that they may have been married, but if so, they never lived together.

Thanks to Temple and other influential contacts, Swift was appointed a parish priest in County Antrim back in Ireland, and a few years later obtained a better living at Laracor in County Meath. Since there were hardly any Anglicans in Ireland, Swift’s parishioners numbered no more than about fifteen; so he was left with plenty of time to write his earliest pamphlets: “The Battle of the Books” and “The Tale of a Tub” were both composed at this period. He was also able to travel back frequently to England.

This was an age of tremendous political turbulence and ferocious rivalry between the political parties, all played out against the greatest war Britain had fought for centuries. King William III had died in 1702, and was succeeded by his sister-in-law, Anne; but before his death William had forged a “Grand Alliance” of Britain, Holland, the Austrian Empire and various small states to resist the overweening ambition of Louis XIV of France in the War of the Spanish Succession. Now John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, was sent to the continent to command the allied armies, and was to prove himself the greatest general of the age. In 1704 Marlborough led his forces down the Rhine and across Bavaria to the Danube, where he annihilated the French at the battle of Blenheim. It is difficult nowadays to fully appreciate the impact of Blenheim: it was the first battle English armies had won on the continent since the Middle Ages, and the first defeat suffered by the French for a century. The myth of French invincibility was broken. Marlborough the returned to the Netherlands, where he won two more great victories over the French; at Ramillies in 1706 and Oundenarde in 1708. Queen Anne granted him the land and the money to build the gigantic palace in Oxfordshire that is named after his most famous achievement.

But on the political front things were not necessarily going smoothly. There were two political parties at the time: the Whigs and the Tories. Their original division had been over religious matters: the Tories were above all the party of the Church of England; hostile to any further concessions to the nonconformist churches: the Presbyterians, Baptists and Quakers; whereas the Whigs were the party of religious toleration. Now further divisions emerged. Originally all politicians except a few of the most extreme Tories had supported the war. Marlborough had commanded the armies, his brother-in-law Lord Godolphin, the Lord Treasurer, had raised the necessary funds, and a moderate Tory, Robert Harley, had managed the House of Commons. But as the war dragged on, doubts began to surface on the Tory side. It was not just a question of bloodshed, but also of money. Godolphin was financing the war with borrowed money, through the medium of two recent innovations: the Bank of England and the National Debt. An entirely new phenomenon emerged: the great money-men of the City of London, who were raising the money for the war. Soon the National Debt was running at over £50 million, thirteen times the government’s annual revenue from taxation; and this at a time when the entire non-military expenditure of the government was not more than £1 ½ million. The country squires who made up the Tory party in Parliament wondered how these debts could ever be settled. Should not a compromise peace be signed before the country became irretrievably bankrupt? Conversely the Whigs, with their enthusiasm for fighting to total victory, were seen as the party of the City wide-boys with their dubious financial practices. In 1708 Harley, sensing the mood of the country was changing, left the government and began to campaign against the war.

By 1709 the war party was in serious need of another Marlborough triumph to rally support. What they got instead was an appalling bloodbath at Malplaquet; the fourth and least satisfying of the Duke’s victories. It was a preview of a First World War battle, where the Allied armies slammed head-on into a strongly-defended French position. Almost 30,000 men were last in a single day, the majority being on the Allied side. At the same time Allied forces were expelled from Spain, leaving only Gibraltar in British hands. Now Queen Anne decided she had seen enough; she sacked her Whig ministers and appointed Robert Harley in their place, with the aim of negotiating a peace treaty. Next year the great Duke of Marlborough himself was sacked from command of the Allied armies, with a letter from the Queen that was so rude that he threw it on the fire. He spent the rest of the reign in exile, fearing prosecution for corruption.

All this sparked an unprecedented wave of political pamphleteering, involving the finest writers of the times. Daniel Defoe gave his services, Addison and Steele backed the Whigs, but it was Swift who proved himself the great master of propaganda. He was a Tory in sentiment, and he attached himself to Robert Harley. He wrote for, and for a while edited, a Tory periodical, “The Examiner”, denouncing the Whigs and revealing vicious hatred of Marlborough. His most famous pamphlet, “The Conduct of the Allies” was published in late 1711, and sold 11,000 copies in the first month. In it he denounced the stupidity of not making peace earlier, but instead continuing the futile war in Spain. He denied that Britain was gaining anything from the war; it was being fought purely for the benefit of the Austrians and particularly the Dutch, whom he especially despised. Undoubtedly this struck a chord in the country, and was enormously influential. He further served the cause with pamphlets like “The Public Spirit of the Whigs”, and with personal attacks on the Whig leaders. Swift was rewarded for his political services by being appointed Dean of St. Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin. He would have hoped for a Bishopric, but it is said that this was vetoed by Queen Anne, who was shocked by the scatological nature of much of Swift’s writing.

The new Tory government, with Harley (now Earl of Oxford) as Lord Treasurer, and another friend of Swift, Henry St. John (Viscount Bolingbroke) as Secretary of State, won huge majorities at two successive General Elections and set about negotiating peace with France, which finally bore fruit in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, and set the European frontiers for a generation. But it was a murky business, for Britain’s allies were not consulted, and indeed their troops were left holding the front line against the French when the British army was secretly ordered to withdraw.
This created new problems for the ministers, because among the allies involved was George, Elector of Hanover, and he was furious. Queen Anne was now in poor health, and she had no surviving children. Under the Act of Settlement of 1701, George was heir to the English throne, which specifically laid down that under no circumstances could a Catholic become King; thus excluding James Edward Stuart, son of King James II who had been driven from the throne in 1689, and now a client of Louis XIV of France. James’s supporters were known as Jacobites (from “Jacobus”, the Latin version of James). The Tory party had always had a Jacobite wing, but James’s Catholicism had proved an insuperable obstacle to winning mass support. Now the ministers had every incentive to turn Jacobite, and secret overtures were made to James. Undoubtedly Swift knew nothing about this: he was never a Jacobite, and he hated Catholics. The plans came to nothing, for James refused to change his religion. The government began to disintegrate under the pressure, with the leaders trading public insults. Finally at the end of July in 1714 Queen Anne had had enough: she sacked her ministers, and moderate Whigs and neutrals were appointed in their place. Two days later the Queen died, and without any fuss George was invited to come to England and accept the crown. Next year, unsuccessful Jacobite risings in Scotland and northern England finally discredited the Tories.

The fall of the Tory government marked the end of any hopes Swift might have had for any further Church preferment. He returned to Ireland, to live “like a rat in a hole” as he sourly put it, and thenceforth seldom visited England. But he continued to write as vigorously as ever. Many of his later works specifically deal with the problems of Ireland, such as the “Drapier’s Letters” and the “Modest Proposal”; but of course there was also “Gulliver’s Travels”, published anonymously (like almost all his writings) in 1726. It was an immediate hit, being quickly translated into several languages, and was the only work which earned Swift any money. It is safe to predict that its fame will continue as long as books are read.

Swift must have been devastated by the death of his beloved “Stella” in 1728. His own health declined from the late 1730s, and his behaviour caused many people to think he had gone mad (he probably suffered from Meniere’s disease). He died in 1742, by which time he must have seemed a relic from a bygone age.

(The next Blog entry will examine some of Swift's writings)

Rousseau definitions

I have already dealt in an earlier post of the central concept of "The Social Contract" by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which is the "General Will". But many of the terms used by Rousseau in explaining his ideas are confusing to us, because he employs words which have rather different meanings today. (Once again I am relying on the translation by Maurice Cranston, published by Penguin Books)

1. Sovereignty
For Rousseau, the whole body of the citizens is always the final sovereign authority, and its supreme function is the passing of major constitutional legislation. Such laws have no validity unless approved by the citizens. Rousseau envisages the citizens all assembled under a tree for this purpose, though he admits this is practicable only in very small states. He does not approve of the election of delegates (such as Members of Parliament) to carry out this function. The modern equivalent of Rousseau's sovereign authority would be the Annual General Meeting of a company or society. I suppose Rousseau today would approve of binding referendums being held on all important questions.

2. Laws and Republics
When Rousseau and his contemporary political thinkers talked about "laws", what they actually meant was what we would call "constitutions": the fundamental rules that regulate how a state, or any other organisation, is to be run. The key function of such laws was that they clearly laid down what the state could and could not do. Eighteenth century writers thus distinguished between states governed by "laws" and those governed by "arbitrary power", in which the government could do whatever it liked. It was the proud boast of English people that the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688-9 had made them a "free people", in a state governed by laws. Even King George III believed this, and spoke frequently of "our matchless constitution". Rousseau points out that constitutional laws would have to be drawn up by someone he calls a "lawgiver", who must be motivated by pure altruism rather than by the desire for personal gain. There can be no doubt that both Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon saw themselves as lawgivers in the Rousseauist mode. Rousseau calls any state governed by laws a "Republic", regardless of its form of government.

3. Government
In Rousseau's system we have a dual aspect: as citizens, we all have a share in making the laws, but as subjects, we have a duty to obey the laws. The government he sees as an intermediary body between subjects and citizens; enforcing the laws that the citizens have made. But this has nothing to do with sovereign authority, which always abides with the whole citizen body. He insists that we have no duty to obey the government as such; if the government breaks the constitutional laws and behaves in an arbitrary fashion, we no longer have any duty to obey. Rousseau follows Aristotle in dividing governments into three kinds, but as always his definitions seem unusual :-

4. Democracy
This means "government by the people", but Rousseau uses it to mean what would now be called "direct democracy", in which the whole people take all governmental decisions, as with the peasants in a village all meeting together under a tree. There is no doubt that Rousseau thinks that very small states are the best. He admits, however, that "A government so perfect is not suited to men".

5. Aristocracy
Most political writers would call this "oligarchy": a system whereby governmental power is held by a small group of people. But how are this governing elite to be chosen? The worst system, Rousseau thinks, is to have a hereditary ruling group, and he uses several traditional arguments, going right back to Aristotle, to make this point. A much better system, he thinks, is to have an "elective aristocracy", in which the people choose their governors; but even this is less than ideal, since any ruling group will tend to give its own sectional interests priority over the good of the whole people. Rousseau would therefore call the British (or American) political system an "elective aristocracy": every few years we are able to choose which bunch of bosses we want to rule us, but this is the limit of our involvement in legislation. It is better than nothing, but, thinks Rousseau, it should not be confused with democracy. He makes this memorable comment on the British political system:-
"The English people believes itself to be free; it is gravely mistaken; it is free only during the election of Members of Parliament; as soon as the Members are are elected, the people is enslaved, it is nothing. In the brief moments of its freedom, the English people makes such a use of that freedom that it deserves to lose it". (Book III, chapter 15). I refrain from any comment!

6. Monarchy
To Rousseau, this is a sytem where all power is held by a single person. Rousseau might therefore describe Hitler, Stalin or Mao as "monarchs". He would surely also point out the hereditary character of the governments of, for instance, North Korea and Syria.

7. Dictatorship
As with "democracy", the word "dictator" was not current in Rousseau's day: they were terms used in classical antiquity which he revived. Rousseau's near-contemporary, the English radical John Wilkes, never uses either word in his writings, though he was, in our terms, denouncing royal dictatorship and demanding more democracy. It is therefore no surprise that Rousseau uses the word "dictator" in an entirely Roman sense: someone who is given extraordinary powers as a temporary expedient to deal with a grave threat to the state. Rousseau might therefore call Churchill in the Second World War a "dictator", without using the word in any condemnatory sense - and, in the true Roman style, Churchill surrendered his powers once the war was over, though in his case involuntarily, since he was heavily defeated in the 1945 general election.

8. Religion
To Rousseau,true religion is an intensely private thing: what I believe in my heart. He is totally opposed to any organised church which is separate from the state, and may be in opposition to it. He praises Tsarist Russia and the Turkish caliphate for having churches firmly under governmental control - but says this is useful as a mechanism for social control, just as long as we don't confuse it with true religion! What I choose to believe in my heart is no concern of the state: I am answerable only for my actions, not for my beliefs. He throws in the gratuitous comment, "Christianity preaches only servitude and submission: its spirit is too favourable to tyranny for tyranny not to take advantage of it" (Book IV chapter 8). We can easily understand why the book was condemned not only by Catholics in France but also by the Calvinists of Rousseau's native Geneva!

Wednesday, 16 November 2011


Wroxeter is in Shropshire, south of Shrewsbury. It was originally a legionary headquarters, and later became the fourth largest town in Roman Britain, by the name of Viroconium Cornoviorum. Its importance was as the main bridging-point across the River Severn. The Roman road of Watling Street, coming up from London, turned to the left near the modern town of Penkridge, north of Wolverhampton, and then ran due west to Wroxeter, on a line followed by the present A5. Looking south after crossing the Severn at Wroxeter, the Romans would see two lines of hills, Caer Caradoc and the Long Mynd, and they drove their next road directly towards these, down to Hereford and Monmouth. The course of the road can still be traced by the names of the present towns along its path: All Stretton, Church Stretton, Little Stretton; meaning "on the street" (see also, Stratford, etc)

There is an inscription dedicated to the Emperor Hadrian, dated 129-130 A.D. The only part of the town to survive is the baths, including a massive section of brick wall (see above) and the hypocaust system that provided the heating (see below).
There is also the foundations of what must have been a fine colonnade.

Otherwise the extent of the town is difficult to trace, because for centuries farmers removed stone for their buildings and walls. Even the nearby church includes a good deal of Roman stone.
Recently there was a television documentary in which a small Roman villa was built in a nearby field, using only Roman tools and building methods. The result looks very pleasant.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The End of Ancient Rome: Part 3; Failed Restoration

Odoacer, the German mercenary who deposed the last Roman Emperor in the west, ruled Italy till 493, when Theodoric the Ostrogoth invaded with the encouragement of Constantinople, and defeated and killed him. Theodoric then reigned as King until his death in 526; nominally subject to the Emperor of the east, who recognised him with the title of “Patrician”.

Over this period of half a century, Italy was quite peaceful and well-ruled. Theodoric was an Arian Christian, but tolerated the Catholics. Ravenna remained the capital, and new churches were built there. The shadow of Roman civilization remained, declining only very slowly. In Italy, as in France and Spain, the Goths were always outnumbered by the earlier inhabitants, and did not mingle with them much. The new barbarian kings had to use Roman officials and Roman bureaucratic methods officials to keep their kingdoms going, so coins were issued with Latin inscriptions, and ranks like Senator, Consul etc still existed. In France, important legal documents were still written on imported Egyptian papyrus till the end of 7th century: the proper way of doing things! This slow decline can be seen by the way Latin was gradually transformed into dialects of Italian, French, Spanish and others. Only in Britain was there the onset of a “dark age”, when Latin, literacy and Christianity vanished. In Rome, Theodoric repaired public buildings and restored aqueducts: even chariot-racing revived. Villa life continued, as did the drift from the towns to countryside. The era even produced a major intellectual figure, Boethius, an important government official under Theodoric, who eventually fell from power and wrote “ The Consolations of Philosophy” while awaiting his gruesome execution in 523. This work became one of the best-known books of the later middle ages and the Renaissance, despite containing no mention of Christianity at all. All in all, this period might be considered something of a golden age for Italy; and was certainly much better than what followed!

In the East, Constantinople continued to flourish, though now the language was Greek, and henceforth the Empire is known as “Byzantine” to historians, though the people called themselves “Romans” till very end. The greatest Emperor of the period was Justinian, 527-565: by birth a peasant from present-day Croatia. His childless uncle Justin had risen to be Emperor through the army, and Justinian succeeded him, along with his strong-minded wife Theodora, formerly a dancer in the circus, and, according to the scandalmongers, a child-prostitute.

Justinian built the great cathedral of Santa Sophia and codified the laws of the Empire, but his great ambition was to recover the lost lands of the wesr and save them from the Arian heretics. Accordingly in 535 he sent his general Belisarius with an armada against the Vandals in north Africa; defeating them in a single campaign and reuniting Carthage with the Empire. Next, Belisarius invaded Italy, where his campaign was helped by a disputed succession and internal conflicts after the death of Theodoric. He took Rome, but was then besieged there for a year. The city suffered great destruction as the Goths cut the aqueducts and Belisarius demolished ancient buildings to get stone to repair the walls: even statues were broken up for catapult missiles! Rome held out, and Belisarius took Ravenna too, where new churches were then consecrated, with mosaics of Justinian that are today amongst the chief glories of the town (see above). But then the new Gothic king Totila struck back; Rome changed hands three times, and destruction was compounded by outbreak of plague in 543. Meanwhile in 539 the Burgundians took Milan, destroyed the city and slaughtered the entire population. Justinian came to be suspicious of Belisarius; his natural distrust no doubt boosted by reports that the Goths were so impressed by Belisarius’s qualities that they suggested he should join them and they would make him Emperor! Belisarius was recalled to Constantinople in disgrace, though the story that he was blinded and forced to beg on the streets is probably a mediaeval invention.
Justinian made an amazing choice as successor to Belisarius: an aged eunuch called Narses, who had never commanded an army in his life. Narses marched into Italy in 552, met Totila in battle and utterly defeated him: Totila was killed and the surviving Ostrogoths retreated over the Alps.

After 19 years of war, plague and destruction, Italy was now very weak. There was little resistance when in 568 a new people, the Lombards, migrated over the Alps; taking Pavia in 572 and making it their capital. The Lombards were much more barbaric than the Goths, and their kings never had much control over local chiefs. They never ruled all Italy: Venice remained loyal to Constantinople, and Rome was often menaced but never taken. But where could the Popes appeal for aid? Constantinople was no help: the city was itself besieged by the Persians in in the 620s and then by the Arabs in 717-718. Constantinople could even make things worse : in 709 the homicidal emperor Justinian II decided to pillage Ravenna, which was still part of his empire. He arrested all the leading citizens and executed them, except for the archbishop, who was merely blinded and exiled to distant monastery. Ravenna fell to the Lombards in 751; then only Sicily and a few bases on the mainland were still held by the Empire. Probably this was ultimate low point of Italy: the population was down to about 2 ½ million and Rome in ruins, with large areas inside the walls left uninhabited. Italy would not again be unified under a single government until the second half of the nineteenth century.

Who was the most responsible for this? Edward Gibbon blames Justinian, for his futile and destructive attempt to reconquer the old Empire:-
“The triple scourge of war, pestilence and famine afflicted the subjects of Justinian, and his reign is disgraced by a visible decrease of the human species which has never been repaired in some of the fairest countries of the globe”.
Modern historians would point to the great plague epidemic of 543, which caused the deaths of countless thousands in Constantinople and throughout the Empire. Another possibly linked fact is evidence of a gigantic volcanic eruption in Indonesia in 535, causing sulphuric acid peaks in the Arctic and Antarctic ice, and probably causing massive short-lived climate change, with consequent crop failures and starvation. Was this instrumental in bringing about the final collapse of the old Roman world?

But at the same time there were glimmerings of hope for the future. Saint Benedict was born in the Umbrian region of central Italy around 480. It is said that met Totila, but more importantly amidst the savage fighting of the 540s he founded the monastery of Monte Cassino and drew up the Rule that formed the basis for European monasticism, with its triple emphasis on prayer, work and study. It was to be through the monasteries that the learning and literature of the ancient world would be preserved.

("The Secret History" by Procopius gives a splendidly scandalous account of Justinian and his court)

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The End of Ancient Rome: Part 2; Collapse

The collapse of the Roman Empire in the west happened very suddenly, in the course of a single generation, and must have come as a devastating surprise to the inhabitants of a state which had survived all perils for over 400 years, and a city whose history went back in legend for more than a thousand.

In 375 the Emperor Valentinian died. He had been an effective ruler of the western half of the Roman Empire, which now went to his teenage son Gratian, while his much less able brother Valens ruled the east from Constantinople. In 378, the Visigoths crossed the Danube into modern Bulgaria. Originally Valens raised no objection; but when they ran out of food and started to cause trouble, he decided to teach them a lesson. Without waiting for reinforcements from the west, he attacked their encampment at Adrianople; where he and his entire army were slaughtered. This was undoubtedly one of the most decisive battles of European history, because afterwards the Goths could not be expelled from the Empire. The vast horde was perpetually on the move, though unable to take the walled cities. They did not seek to destroy the Empire, but their constant need for food caused devastation. The only remedy was to buy them off. Their presence on the border between the eastern and western halves of the Empire caused endless disputes and hostility as the different Emperors in Constantinople and Milan tried to get the Goths out of their territory.

The reign of Honorius in the west, 395-423, was the most disastrous in Roman history. He was proclaimed Emperor at the age of just 12, solely because he was the son of the great and powerful Emperor Theodosius; and proved to be an extremely feeble character, showing little interest in actually governing, but instead being totally reliant on his military commander, Stilicho the Vandal.
In 402 Alaric, King of the Visigoths, crossed the Alps into Italy, but was defeated by Stilicho near Turin and retreated. Honorius made his only visit to Rome to celebrate an undeserved Triumph, but then felt it prudent to move the capital from Milan to Ravenna, protected by marshes and with good sea links to Constantinople.

Meanwhile pressure was building up on the Rhine frontier, where the garrisons were barely holding the line of the river against the Germanic tribes. Then on New Year’s Day 406/7, the Rhine froze solid. Huge numbers of Vandals, Alamanni, Burgundians, Franks and others crossed the river, swept aside the defences and poured down through France and ultimately into Spain. They were probably desperately seeking food rather than conquest, and were eventually allowed to settle down as “foederati” acknowledging the sovereignty of the Emperor and supplying him with troops, but living under their own laws. These events led the Romans to abandon Britain entirely; Honorius telling the Britons to defend themselves in future as the last legions departed. The “Dark Ages” quickly engulfed Britain: for the next 200 years there are hardly any written records.

In 408 Alaric was in Italy again, threatening Rome itself. The Senate, urged by Stilicho, agreed to buy him off with an immense sum of gold, but Honorius suspected Stilicho of seeking to take the throne for himself and had him executed. Alaric probably had ambitions of replacing Stilicho as the Emperor’s warlord; but found that while Honorius couldn’t fight him, he wouldn’t negotiate, and still hadn’t paid the protection money! Disgusted with this double-dealing, and fed up with waiting, on August 3rd 410 Alaric’s Visigoths entered Rome and plundered it, meeting little resistance. It was a very mild plundering, lasting just three days: Christian churches were left untouched, though pagan temples were pillaged; there was no arson, and only one building was destroyed. But the psychological effect was enormous: no barbarians had taken Rome for over 700 years; and to many it must have seemed the end of civilization. Over in North Africa, Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo near Carthage, found that many pagans blamed the disaster on Rome’s abandonment of its old gods. He was moved to write his great masterpiece “The City of God”, trying to find the workings of God’s will in what had occurred.
Within a year, Alaric was dead, and his Visigoths resumed their wanderings, moving into Spain and driving out the Germanic tribes who had recently settled there. One group of these, the Vandals under Genseric, crossed over into north Africa and in 439 captured Carthage. There they built a fleet, threatening Mediterranean trade with their piracy and in particular disrupting the grain supply from Egypt, upon which Rome had long depended. This might in fact be the single most important cause of the collapse of the western Empire.

The eastern Empire at Constantinople was now much stronger and more stable than the western, where the later Emperors at Ravenna were often mere puppets in the hands of German mercenary warlords. And now there was the problem of the Huns: a particular menace when Attila, “the scourge of God” became king of all the Hun tribes and assembled a mighty horde. These really were savages, unlike the Christian Goths and Vandals; a deadly menace and a common enemy to all. In 451 the Huns invaded across the Rhine, spreading panic and devastation. Facing them was General Aetius, “the last of the Romans”. He assembled a composite army, of Romans together with Franks, Alamanni and Visigoths, which fought the Huns to a standstill in a gigantic battle near Chalons. Following this, Attila retreated back into Germany, and the west was saved. This was the second decisive battle of the period, after Adrianople.
Next year, Attila invaded Italy; causing, according to tradition, terrified refugees to flee to the islands that became Venice. He approached Rome, but was somehow persuaded to withdraw by Pope Leo I. Months later Attila was no more, choked to death after a feast, and his empire fell apart; with the Huns withdrawing to the eastern Ukraine. In 454, the Emperor Valentinian III, jealous of Aetius, personally stabbed him to death. (“You have cut off your right hand with your left”, the Emperor was told).

Rome was now defenceless. In 455 Genseric’s Vandal fleet from Carthage descended on the once-mighty capital and plundered it for two weeks; doing a much more thorough job than the Visigoths a generation earlier. Genseric promised Pope Leo there would be no killing or arson, but the ancient palaces on the Palatine hill were completely ransacked, the gilded tiles were removed from the roof of the Temple of Jupiter, and the Menora, the great sacred Jewish candlestick seized from the Temple in Jerusalem by the Emperor Titus back in AD 70, was taken back to Carthage (The picture is of the relief on the Arch of Titus in the Forum in Rome. I’m not sure what happened to the Menora after this: it would seem to be a suitable subject for an Indiana Jones film)

There was now little reason for the Germanic peoples to prop up the Empire any longer. Rome was pillaged again in 472 by Ricimer, a German mercenary. Finally, in 476, another German mercenary, Odoacer, deposed the Emperor Romulus Augustulus, a mere boy, and informed the Emperor Zeno in Constantinople that there was now no emperor in the west. The western Roman Empire was finally at an end. It was almost a century since Adrianople, but in truth, for most of this time the Empire in the west had been little more than a feeble ghost of its former glory.

(The third and final part of this essay will describe the unsuccesful attempt by Justinian to rebuild the Empire in the west)

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The End of Ancient Rome: Part 1: Final Flowering

The Roman Empire reached its peak around 150 AD, with a population of perhaps 30 million, of which at least 1 million lived in the city itself and 8 million it Italy. But by 650 AD the population of Italy was down to an estimated 2 ½ million and Rome itself to a mere few thousand. How had this catastrophic decline happened?

Plague struck in the 160s and the population never recovered, leading to economic stagnation, decline of the towns, small farmers being replaced by huge slave or serf estates, massive government financial deficits and debasement of the coinage. About 95% of government income came from farming. By the 3rd century AD all free inhabitants of the empire were “citizens”; but instead there came to be a class division into rich and poor, the “honestiores” and “humiliores”. It is obvious, and significant, what modern words derive from these terms!

There were civil wars and government chaos, especially in the third century. Following the murder of the Emperor Alexander Severus in 235, Rome had 30 “recognised” emperors in the next fifty years, plus endless claimants and usurpers in the provinces. There were also new external enemies. In the east, a new Persian Empire fought endless wars with Rome over the next 400 years for control of Iraq, Syria, and Armenia. Around 240 came the first appearance of the Goths: Germanic herdsmen originally from the Baltic, who became divided into the Ostrogoths in the Ukraine and the Visigoths in Romania. They had to keep moving to find new pasture for their vast herds and flocks, and began raiding into the Balkans and across the Black Sea into what is now Turkey. Far to the east, vast tribal movements, possibly caused by climate change, led to the westwards migration of the Huns; Asiatic nomads. They reached the eastern Ukraine around 375, driving the Germanic peoples of central Europe up against the Roman Empire on its Danube and Rhine frontiers: not just the Goths, but also Franks, Vandals, Burgundians, Lombards, Alamanni and others. For the next thousand years, Europe would be terrorised by periodic irruptions of central Asian tribes; horse-archers of the steppe: Huns, Avars, Magyars, Turks and Mongols. The new dangers were shown by the erection of a new wall around Rome about 270: the Aurelian Wall.

Rome might have seemed doomed, but the Empire was saved and given another century of life by Diocletian (284-305), an illiterate peasant from the Balkans who rose to be Emperor through the army, and restored order at cost of setting up a totalitarian state. He divided the empire with a colleague, Maximian, an even rougher Balkan peasant; Diocletian ruling the east and Maximian the west. Maximian however established his headquarters not at Rome, but at Milan, being more central strategically. From this point, Rome ceased to be the capital and was seldom visited by the Emperors, though retained the senate and other trappings of a vanished authority.
The army doubled in size; but with falling population levels, more and more barbarian tribes were admitted into the Empire and given land in return for providing soldiers. Soon the army ceased to be Roman in any meaningful sense, with its manpower including large numbers of Germans or even Huns. Towards the end, the army was commanded by barbarian warlords; Goths, Vandals and others; who no longer even bothered to Latinise their names.

Diocletian introduced an “Emperor cult”; the Emperor was now to be treated as a semi-divine being: an innovation seemingly adopted from Persian traditions. He wore fantastically elaborate costumes on ceremonial occasions, his court was regulated by detailed ritual, and those approaching had to prostrate themselves in his presence. Christians naturally would not acknowledge the Emperor’s divinity, and so Diocletian conducted last great persecution of Christians for refusing Emperor-worship; though this seems to have been more severe in the eastern part of the Empire than in the west.
To safeguard trade and industry, unpopular jobs were made hereditary: thus a baker’s son must himself become a baker, and must marry a baker’s daughter. In some of the hardest jobs, such as mining or quarrying, men even branded, so they could be identified if they escaped. Running away from one’s job could even lead to execution. To safeguard tax revenue, towns were ordered to produce a fixed sum; and if this was not forthcoming, town councillors had to make up any shortfall from own pockets. With the towns in decline, this proved extremely unpopular: a little later, the Emperor Maxentius found an ingenious way of persecuting Christians,: namely, by compulsorily appointing them town councillors!

Art changed completely: statues of Diocletian were barbaric in style: when the Arch of Constantine was erected in Rome, bits from older monuments were cannibalized for the decoration: artists could no longer carve classical figures! (The example shown here, which is believed to depict Diocletian and his colleagues, is in Venice)

In 305 Diocletian and Maximian both abdicated (the latter very unwillingly) and retired: Diocletian to Split in present-day Croatia (where his villa can still be seen), and Maximian to Sicily
(in the centre of the island there is a villa with magnificent mosaic floors which may have been his). There then followed another round of civil wars, as Constantine rose to be sole emperor; defeating and his killing rivals Maxentius (his brother-in-law, and also the son of Maximian) and Licinius (his cousin’s husband). Constantine built a new capital on the Bosphorus; Constantinople; which soon became much the biggest city in the Empire.
Constantine famously tolerated and encouraged Christianity, though he himself was baptised only on his deathbed. His administrative involvement in the development of Christian doctrine was as important as his conversion. He found Christianity full of doctrinal disputes, and in 325 summoned the Council of Nicaea to sort these out. The most crucial matter to be resolved was the problem of Arianism; named after Arius, a theologian who maintained that Jesus, as the Son of God, must necessarily be later and lesser than God the Father. At Nicaea this theory was condemned as heretical, and the Athanasian Creed we have today (the Holy Trinity of equals: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost) became the only official doctrine. This was actually very important, because around this time the Goths, Vandals and other tribes were converted to Christianity; but they mostly became Arians, as did many of the Imperial family. (There is a tradition that during the heated debates at Nicaea, the heresiach Arius was clouted in the face by a certain Nicholas, a bishop from Myra; but most authorities dismiss this as a legend without foundation: nor is it in any way connected with Nicholas’s later reincarnation as Santa Claus!)

Constantine’s dynasty ruled a reunited Empire until the family finally became extinct in 363; its survival not being helped by rebellions and executions within the family. Another soldier, Valentinian, was then chosen as Emperor by the army: but he divided the Empire again, ruling in the west himself and giving the east to brother Valens. After this, there were almost always two Emperors: one in Italy and one at Constantinople.

Thanks to the reforms of Diocletian and Constantine the Roman Empire gained a new lease of life, but the last few years of the fourth century brought about a dramatic collapse. This will be covered in the next blog entry.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

November 5th

November 5th is upon us, and once again we commemorate the day in 1605 (except that nobody ever remembers the year) when Guy Fawkes was caught in the very act of preparing to blow up the Houses of Parliament - assuming, of course, that it was a genuine plot, not a put-up job by the government of the day, as some historians have suggested.
Fawkes and his fellow-plotters were all Roman Catholics. Celebrating the detection of the plot with bonfires seems to have started around 1680, when England was in the grip of a new wave of anti-Catholic hysteria: the great “Popish Plot” scare. The figure ceremonially burnt on the November 5th bonfires is often called “the Guy”, but it actually represents the Pope rather than Fawkes (who was hung, drawn and quartered, the traditional penalty for High Treason, not burnt at the stake). Burning or hanging in effigy was an ancient method of demonstrating popular hatred of some prominent person, and the figure on the bonfire was actually labelled “The Pope” until very recently in some places; notably the town of Lewes in Sussex.
By a happy coincidence, November 5th was also the day when in 1688 William of Orange landed at Torbay on his way to take the crown from England’s last Catholic king, James II. William’s supporters hailed as a clear mark of divine providence the “Protestant wind” which blew from the east to carry William’s fleet down the Channel from Holland, whilst keeping James’s fleet bottled up in the Thames estuary, unable to get round the headland of Kent. James ran away, William occupied London bloodlessly and was proclaimed King. Since then it has been laid down that no King may be a Catholic, and any member of the royal family who marries a Catholic is automatically excluded from the line of succession.

I found in an old Church of England Prayer Book prescribed prayers for November 5th, bringing together this double anniversary under the heading of “Gunpowder Treason”. The first prayer begins:-

“Almighty God, who hast in all ages showed thy power and mercy in the miraculous and gracious deliverance of thy Church, and in the protection of righteous and religious Kings and states, professing thy holy and eternal truth from the wicked conspiracies and malicious practices of all the enemies thereof; We yield thee our unfeigned thanks and praise for the wonderful and mighty deliverance of our gracious sovereign King James the First, the Queen, the Prince and all the Royal branches, with the Nobility, Clergy and Commons of England, then assembled in Parliament, by Popish treachery appointed as sheep to the slaughter, in a most barbarous and savage manner, beyond the examples of former ages. (etc etc)”

And then the second prayer:-

“Accept also, most gracious God, of our unfeigned thanks for filling our hearts again with joy and gladness, after the time thou hadst afflicted us, and putting a new song in our mouths, by bringing his majesty King William upon this day, for the deliverance of our church and Nation from Popish tyranny and arbitrary power. We adore the wisdom and justice of they providence, which so timely interposed in our extreme danger and disappointed all the designs of our enemies (etc etc)”

These prayers were abolished by Parliament in 1849. We are not likely to find such violently anti-Catholic sentiments in these ecumenical times. Indeed, we are now told that the relevant clauses of the Bill of Rights (1689) and the Act of Settlement (1701) will be repealed, to allow Catholics once again to succeed to the throne!

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Literature: Stephen Potter and Gamesmanship

Stephen Potter was one of the few writers who coined a new term in the English language; the word being "Gamesmanship". In the 1950s he wrote four short but very funny books: "Gamesmanship", "Lifemanship", "One-upmanship" and "Supermanship", followed by two others in a similar vein: "Anti-woo" and "The Complete Golf Gamesmanship". Unfortunately the word "Gamesmanship", though widely used in commentary on sports, is invariably misunderstood and misapplied by people who have obviously not read any of Potter's books. This essay is an attempt to put the record straight.

"Gamesmanship" is nowadays used to describe what is in fact straight cheating, especially in football: for instance, pretending to have bben fouled in order to win a free kick. Such behaviour is totally unlike anything described by Potter, who defines gamesmanship as "The art of winning games without actually cheating". Indeed, Potter's concept of gamesmanship is scarcely applicable to professional sport at all, and certainly not to football. What Potter typically describes is a purely amateur encounter, in a sport such as golf or tennis, between two players who each assume the opponent will behave like a gentleman - except that the gamesman isn't really gentlemanly at all. Thus the gamesman might indicate that he has recently suffered some injury or bereavement, in the hope that his opponent will feel sorry for him and ease up on his efforts, in much the same way that, when playing against small children, we often let them win. The same result may be achieved by the gamesman giving the impression that he doesn't care whether he wins or not, but is playing purely for the fun of it. The gamesman might try to confuse his opponent by adopting bizarre tactics, or embarrass him by his inappropriate clothes or peculiar behaviour. If the opponent plays a bad shot, the gamesman should irritate him by offering gratuitous advice on how to improve his technique. If the gamesman on occasions put his opponent off his stroke by moving at the wrong time or causing some other distraction, he should always apologise profusely for such "accidental" misconduct. In sedentary games such as chess, the gamesman can imply he has made a deep atudy of the subject.(My suggestion: when the opponent makes some perfectly innocuous move, the gamesman exclaims, as though talking to himself, "Well, well! The old Zinoviev gambit! I haven't come across that for years!" Opponent will vaguely remember he's heard the name Zinoviev somewhere before)
Potter's gamesman, in fact, is a thorough cad, but not a cheat.

In the following books, Potter developes the concept of "Lifemanship", which essentially consists of how the "lifeman" manages to convey the impression that he has certain expertise or erudition which he does not in fact possess; as a motorist, birdwatcher, linguist, rockclimber, academic, sportsman or whatever. Telling direct lies is cheating, and even worse, runs the risk of being exposed by a genuine expert. Potter gives various examples: how to be one-up on your doctor or supervisor (or, if the boot is on the other foot, how to prevent this happening), how to become the dominant person at a meeting or seminar, whether as speaker, chairman, or simply someone who asks a question from the floor; and the style of book-reviewing which Potter styles "Newstatesmanship": the art of appearing to know far more about a subject than does the author of the book under discussion.
Potter recommends some basic ploys which can be employed in many different situations. For instance, if asked to identify a certain bird, the lifeman can say firmly, "Where I come from, we used to call it a frog-pippet". This is, of course, quite unanswerable, and can easily be adapted for use in a discussion on, say, botany, or architecture, or even as a spectator at a sporting event.
The technique which Potter uses in his books is to make his points through the medium of anecdotes about the successes, and occasional failures, of various gamesmen and lifemen, and these stories are frequently extremely funny. Obviously most of his characters are fictitious, but some are perfectly genuine, such as Professor Joad and the journalist and politician Tom Driberg. They are treated in exactly the same way as the fictitious characters.

I can claim a few small successes myself. Some years ago, when I used to attend lots of gymnastics events, I was once asked if I was the editor of the "International Gymnast" magazine. I was honest enough to admit that I was not that person; but the point is, why should anyone think I was? But I have also come across some sad cases of opportunities spurned. A former colleague of mine was once seen wearing the distinctive tie of the M.C.C., the Maryleborne Cricket Club; a most exclusive society, very difficult to get into for anyone who is not a top-class cricketer or is without the right social connections. Since my friend was hardly a cricketer at all, I asked him how he had contrived to gain entry to such a prestigious club. He admitted that he wasn't actually a member, but had simply bought the tie at a jumble sale. I was most disappointed at this feeble response, and recommended instead something on these lines:- "Well, I'm afraid I'd never get in nowadays.... I can hardly swing my bowling arm at all..." (make suitable creaky movements of the shoulder) "These endless repetitions always get you in the end, you know.... And what have I got to show for it? Look, even the calluses on my hands have worn off..." The obvious value of this approach is that one's fundamental ineptitude as a cricketer need never be revealed.

Gamesmanship as Stephen Potter envisaged it is thus perhaps now of limited relevance, but lifemanship still lives on!

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Nazi Police Structures, Part 4: Concentration Camps

Concentration Camps (“Konzentrationslager” = KZ)

The earliest concentration camps in Nazi Germany dated from March 1933. At first they were simply convenient buildings where the Nazi forces interned and sometimes beat up or murdered their opponents. Under the emergency decrees enacted after the Reichstag Fire, “protective custody” was authorised for “enemies of the state” or “subversive elements”. The victims at first were mostly communists or socialists. Over 25,000 were arrested in Prussia, and perhaps 15,000 in the rest of Germany. In April 1934 a new Protective Custody law allowed for the internment of enemies of the regime and other “undesirables”. They could be held without trial, or sent to the camps after they had served out their sentences in normal prisons.

The early camps were mostly run by the SA, and were violent, murderous places, with savage mistreatment of victims. The Ministry of the Interior under Frick moved to close down the more lawless camps, and the SA lost most of its power after the “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934.

In March 1933 Himmler founded the camp of Dachau, in Bavaria, in a disused gunpowder factory. In June it was placed under the command of Theodore Eicke of the SS, a former policeman with a conviction for bomb-planting. Himmler approved of Eicke’s methods, and in 1934 Eicke was appointed Inspector of all camps in Germany. The other camps were taken over or closed down, and the running of the camps was given to the “Death’s-Head” branch of the SS ("Totenkopfverbande", with a skull on the cap badge), using Dachau as the model.

Eicke introduced three grades of severity for inmates (III being the harshest; “punishment grade”, involving a bread-and-water diet and sleeping on bare boards). Flogging was imposed for breaches of discipline, and hanging for trying to escape or “agitation and incitement”. Guards were forbidden to fraternise with the inmates, but were made to follow the rule-book rigidly, and to avoid arbitrary or uncontrolled violence. Prisoners were supposed to be “reformed” by hard labour and discipline: hence the famous slogan above the gate of Auschwitz: “Arbeit Macht Frei” – “Work sets you free”. In fact, the work was frequently meaningless as well as exhausting, and the treatment to harsh that prisoners often died.

Many categories of people might be found in the camps: originally Communists, Socialists and other political opponents, but also habitual criminals, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, troublesome priests, Jews (especially after 1938), gipsies, and “asocials” – who might include beggars, drunks, hooligans, the “workshy” etc. The different groups were identified by different badges (Jews wore a yellow star, homosexuals a pink triangle, etc), and some would be treated more harshly than others.

Until 1938 there were only three Death’s-Head camps in Germany, (Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen), with about 8,000 inmates. Their main function was to terrorise certain targeted groups, and to keep the streets clear of “undesirables”. Many prisoners only served a few months in camp before being released; even Jews. Ordinary Germans outside the targeted groups had little to fear. But in 1938 came the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland, with mass arrests of opponents there, and the arrest of 10,000 Jews after Crystal Night. Two new camps were set up, at Flossenburg and Mauthausen (in Austria); the latter particularly feared, with its Grade III regime and brutal forced labour in the stone quarries. At the outbreak of war, there were about 25,000 in the camps – a small number compared with the millions in Stalin’s camps in Russia. Many new camps were built in the war, including Ravensbruck (the women’s camp) and Belsen. This last is second only to Auschwitz in notoriety, since when it was captured by British forces near the end of the war it contained the emaciated bodies of thousands of victims who had died of starvation and typhus as supplies had broken down. (After the liquidation of Auschwitz at the beginning of 1945, the survivors were force-marched in the depths of winter across Poland and Germany to Belsen, thus swelling the camp's numbers uncontrollably. Those who fell behind on the march were shot. It was an operation whose cruelty was exceeded only by its utter pointlessness)

None of the camps in Germany was built for mass extermination. The gas-chamber camps were all in Poland, and were opened in 1941-2. There were four camps which existed solely to gas Jews on arrival: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, which functioned to gas the Polish Jews, mostly in 1942 (an operation known as "Action Reinhard", in memory of Himmler's assassinated deputy Reinhard Heydrich); and two other camps which had gas chambers as well as labour facilities: Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau, which operated until captured by the Russians in 1945. We have comparatively few accounts of the Reinhard camps, because hardly anyone survived to tell the tale, and they were demolished once their work was done. Auschwitz is the most famous for a variety of reasons: it took its victims from all over occupied Europe; there were many survivors (such as the Italian Jewish writer Primo Levi); and most of the camp was still intact when it the Russians arrived - though the huge gas chambers and crematoria had been blown up, and reduced to the heaps of concrete rubble which we see there today. The Reinhard camps mostly killed their victims with fumes from diesel engines rather than with the Zyklon-B gas used in Auschwitz.

The decision to exterminate the Jews

No researcher has ever found any document in which Hitler specifically orders the mass killing of the Jews (or even that Hitler had even heard of Auschwitz). Some historians have even suggested that there never was any specific decision as such to initiate the Holocaust; suggesting that it might have been a policy which emerged as it became clear that the Polish ghettoes could only be a temporary measure and all other “solutions to the Jewish question” proved unworkable (such as mass deportation to a very remote area, like the island of Madagascar or the wilds of Siberia). On the other hand, although Hitler was a very “hands-off” leader, to the extent of often being dubbed a “weak dictator” who exercised little direct control over his subordinates, it seems unlikely that such a major policy could have been implemented without Hitler’s specific approval.
There can be no doubt that Hitler nursed an extreme hatred of all Jews, and that this hatred was shared by most of the Nazi party leaders and membership. A whole chapter in book 1 of “Mein Kampf” is devoted to the Jews. (Exactly when Hitler began to think like this, or why, is still unclear. This kind of anti-Semitic thought was by no means limited to Germany: indeed, the classic work of anti-Jewish ideology, the famous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” was produced in Tsarist Russia at the end of the 19th century). It is clear that when Hitler came to power he intended to do something extreme to “solve the Jewish question”; but what precisely did he have in mind? Discrimination and low-level persecution began in 1933, but nobody anticipated the Holocaust, and up to about 1938-9 Jews in Germany were treated no worse than black people in the southern states of the USA at that time.
If we assume, as do most historians, that at some point Hitler did give the go-ahead for mass killing, then when would be the most likely time? Two important surviving documents are not much help. On July 31st 1941 Goering sent a decree to Heydrich authorising him to initiate a “final solution” to the “Jewish question”. This can hardly mark the start of a new policy, since the mass killing of Jews in Russia had already been going on for several weeks; and it is questionable whether Goering (who never showed any fanatical interest in the “Jewish Question”) actually composed the decree, or simply signed something that Heydrich placed in front of him. Similarly the Wannsee Conference of January 1942 was clearly held to announce and explain a policy that was already being implemented: the building of the death camps had begun some weeks earlier and the first gassings had already taken place in Chelmno.
Some historians think the decision on the Holocaust was made before the invasion of Russia in June 1941; others prefer to date in that autumn, perhaps quite late in the year, once the Germans came to realise they were not going to take Moscow before winter set in. There survives an odd exchange of letters: Lohse, the chief of the occupied Baltic territories, found that a great many of the motor mechanics in Lithuania were Jews, who could do useful work servicing tanks if allowed to live, and wrote to Berlin seeking guidance. Himmler replied in December, informing him that economic considerations were not to be taken into account: all the Jews must be killed. “Tell Lohse these are my orders, which also correspond with the Fuehrer’s wishes”. Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, stated in his postwar testimony that he was informed verbally of the decision to exterminate all Jews "Sometime in the summer of 1941, but he could not remember the date". This is probably all we are likely to get in the way of direct evidence.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Nazi Police Structures: the War

The Reich Security Head Office (RSHA)

This was set up by Heydrich in 1939 to co-ordinate all police and security operations. It was originally divided into these six departments (with the departmental head in brackets)

I – Administration (Best)
II – Personnel & Ideology (Six)
III – SD: Home Intelligence (Ohlendorf)
IV – Gestapo (Muller)
V – Kripo (Nebe)
VI – SD: Foreign Intelligence (Jost)

Each department had its own divisions. Thus the Gestapo work was divided into IVA (Home Territories) and IVB (Foreign Territories). Eichmann was put in charge of department IVB4 (Gestapo: Foreign Territories: Jewish Affairs), and from 1942 became responsible for the rounding-up and deportation of Jews from all over Europe to the gas chambers in Poland. Only military intelligence (Abwehr) was outside Heydrich’s control.
In occupied Europe, the key official was the local Higher SS and Police Leader (HSSPL), who had immense power. Globocnik, the HSSPL in Lublin, south Poland, seems to have begun the extermination of Jews in his territory without any reference to Frank, the nominal Governor of Poland. Similarly Rosenberg, the Governor of occupied Russia, had no control over the mass killings there. It can therefore be said that the SS-Police system increasingly functioned as a “state within a state”, beyond the control of the legal system or the other organs of government.

The Einsatzgruppen

These were “Hit Squads” organised by Heydrich to enter occupied countries behind the front-line troops and arrest or shoot anyone likely to cause trouble: Jews, Communists, clergy, community leaders etc. They were first used in Poland in 1939, but the most famous Einsatzgruppen were the four squads organised for the invasion of Russia in 1941. 3,000 men were assembled, drawn from the ranks of the police and the SS, and divided into four groups, A-D, to cover the entire front from the Baltic to the Ukraine. The commanders (from north to south) were Stahlecker, Nebe, Rasch and Ohlendorf. These men were not crude thugs: Stahlecker was an SS major-general drawn from section VIA of the RSHA; Artur Nebe, as we have seen, had been for the last few years head of the Criminal Police, Rasch had two university degrees and was thus nicknamed "Doctor Doctor", and Otto Ohlendorf was a very clever young man, aged just 34, who also held a senior post in the Economics Ministry. He was the only one of the four who survived to be executed as a war criminal.
It has been pointed out that 3,000 men are not physically capable of shooting millions of victims, and that really large-scale killing only began when Himmler assigned SS battalions to Russia for this purpose in autumn 1941. Local people, mostly Ukrainians or Lithuanians, were recruited to assist them, nicknamed "Hiwis" (helpers). By winter 1941 they had shot at least ½ million Jews and other enemies, including a great many women and children.

The day-to-day activities of the Einstazgruppen can be discovered on this website -

then follow the link to the Jager Report.
There you will find, spelt out in bare and terrifying detail, the day-to-day killings achieved by Stahlecker's Einstazgruppe A in the Baltic villages. To take one entry at random:-

23/8/41: Panevezys: 1,312 Jews, 4,603 Jewesses, 1,609 Jewish children

Numbers of Communists and the mentally ill were also killed. By the end of November 1941, Einsatzgruppe A could report a grand total of 133,346 killed.


The code name given to the "National Co-ordinating for Therapeutic and Medical Establishments" was "T4", after the organisation's address at Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin. It was in fact the body supervising a programme to kill the mentally ill, which operated in Germany between 1939 and 1941. It was run by Philip Bouhler, head of the Nazi Party chancellery, and Dr Karl Brandt, Hitler's personal physician. About a dozen euthanasia centres were established in Germany, and some 20,000 victims were gassed with carbon monoxide or given lethal injections. The programme was supposed to be secret, but details soon leaked out, and it was abandoned in August 1941 after protests from the Catholic Archbishop of Munster. Many of the men who had operated T4, such as Christian Wirth and Franz Stangl, were then transferred to the campaign to gas the Jews, which began at the end of 1941. Historians have always speculated as to whether this was a deliberate "dry run" before starting the Holocaust.

(The next entry will deal with the concentration camps, and with the vexed question of when, if ever, Hitler gave the go-ahead for the Holocaust)

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Nazi Police Structures; Part 2: Gestapo


Before the Nazis came to power, Germany was a federal country, and each individual state had its own state police force (STAPO). These would each include a “Political Department”, whose main function was keeping tabs on Communists; manned by policemen of right-wing views, often poorly educated. The police were forbidden to join the Nazi party, but were often sympathetic.

Prussia was very much the biggest of the German states, and included the capital, Berlin. For many years it had been run by the Socialist Party, but in 1932 was taken under the direct control of the central government. When Hitler formed his coalition government in January 1933, there were only three Nazis in the Cabinet, but one of these was Hermann Goering, who was put in charge of Prussia.
When Goering took control of the Prussian police, he purged any anti-Nazi officers and built up the Political Department under his relative Rudolf Diels. He recruited SA and SS men as special auxiliary police, and encouraged them to shoot any opponents. The Emergency Decrees enacted in March 1933, immediately after the Reichstag Fire, gave the police extensive powers of arrest and internment, of which Goering took full advantage.In June 1933 Diels's force was named the "Secret State Police": Geheime Staatspolizei, or Gestapo for short.

In March 1933 Himmler was placed in charge of the Bavarian police, with Heydrich as his assistant. One of his officials was Heinrich Muller, chief of the Political Department, who was not a party member. Himmler and his subordinates then accumulated power very rapidly. He took over the police forces of all the different states one by one, and in 1934 took control of the Gestapo from Goring and Diels. A special law of Feb 1936 freed the Gestapo from any interference from the Ministry of the Interior.

In June 1936 Himmler was made Minister of Police for the whole of Germany (and later, Minister of the Interior). The following structure was set up:-
Police functions were divided between the "Order Police" (Orpo): a rather low-grade paramilitary force, headed by Kurt Daluege, and the "Security Police" (Sipo), headed by Heydrich. Sipo was further divided into the "Criminal Police" (Kripo), a detective force, headed by Arthur Nebe, and the "Political Police" (Gestapo), headed by Heinrich Muller.

Himmler filled the police leadership with his own SS men. He ordered that in each district the chiefs of Orpo and Sipo should be the senior SS officers. The Gestapo rank and file were mostly recruited from the pre-Nazi police, but their new commanders were bright young Nazi graduates. He saw the role of the Gestapo as combating the “natural enemies” of Nazi Germany: Communists, Jews etc. To fight them, the Gestapo had wide powers of arrest and interrogation (often using torture) and were backed up by “Special Courts” set up in 1934 to deal with political cases. Within the SS, Heydrich maintained his own intelligence-gathering force, the SD, whose functions often overlapped or clashed with those of the Gestapo (see the previous entry)

There were never very many Gestapo. Cologne, a city of ¾ million, never had more than 99 Gestapo officers. In the war, there were about 50,000 Gestapo for the whole of Europe. But they maintained a large network of spies, informers and part-time agents. Everywhere, people were encouraged to report any suspicious behaviour or anti-government remarks by neighbours or workmates. Heydrich was of course well aware that the vast majority of information coming back from such sources was mere malicious gossip, and quite worthless from a police point of view; but the great thing was, nobody could trust anyone else. In every street, apartment-block, business and classroom there would probably be a Gestapo informant, and no-one would dare say or do anything against the Nazi regime.

Modern research suggests that ordinary Germans had little to fear from the Gestapo. Their efforts were targeted on certain key groups: at first, Communists and Socialists, then homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, troublemaking priests, and, increasingly, Jews. Germans outside these groups who were informed on for behaviour such as making anti-Nazi remarks, were usually treated very leniently for a first offence (probably let off with a warning). Until the war, only 644 people were sentenced to death in the whole of Germany! On the other hand, people in the targeted groups could be tortured, sent to concentration camps, and killed by brutal treatment there. This calls into question how far pre-war Nazi Germany can really be called a “totalitarian police state”.
Mass executions only began with the war: especially from 1942.

The People’s Courts

“Special Courts” were established in Germany in 1934 to deal with political enemies of the Nazi government, especially Communists and Socialists. The highest one of these was the People’s Court in Berlin. Before the war this court had only imposed 108 death sentences. The courts were generally lenient towards offenders from non-targeted groups, only imposing short prison sentences (2 years or less). Mass executions only began when Roland Freiser was put in charge of the People’s Court in 1942, imposing almost 1,200 death sentences in his first year. About 11,000 death sentences altogether were imposed in Germany during the war, with twice as many sentenced by military courts-martial: but a large number of the victims would not be Germans but foreign slave-workers. The real terror came after the bomb plot against Hitler in June 1944: at least 300 people were hanged in the main prison in Cologne in the last 4 months before the city fell to the Allies.

(The next entry will outline how things changed during the War)

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Nazi Police Structures; Part 1


The first Nazi paramilitary organisation was the SA (Sturmabteilung, Stormtroopers, or Brownshirts) This was led by Ernst Roehm, a squat, ugly and extremely violent former army officer (and, incidentally, a predatory homosexual) who had joined the Nazi Party even earlier than Hitler. They would act as bodyguards, beat up and intimidate opponents, fight street brawls with Communists and Socialists, and also look impressive when thousands of them took part in uniformed parades and rallies. Their crude street violence played a major part in the Nazi consolidation of power in 1933: they were sworn in as special auxiliary police and given official license to arrest, beat and murder any opponents of the new regime. But by 1934 the old conservatives and Army generals who had backed Hitler were becoming alarmed, not only by the thuggish excesses of the SA, who were now more than a million strong, but by the alarming ambitions of Roehm himself. Increasingly, Roehm was openly saying that Hitler had betrayed the Nazi revolution by selling out to the old ruling classes, and making little secret of his desire for the SA to replace the old Reichswehr as a truly revolutionary army. (I often think that Roehm might have been happier in the Communist party!) Finally in summer 1934 Hitler was given a stark choice by the Army generals: eliminate Roehm or lose Army support. (As Field-Marshal von Blomberg said of the SA, the rebirth of Germany could not be left in the hands of "That gang of thugs, drunks and queers") After some hestitation Hitler gave the go-ahead to Goering and Himmler to dispose of Roehm; and the SA leaders were arrested and shot, together with other opponents of the Nazi regime, in the "Night of the Long Knives", June 1934. The SS played its first significant role in the mass killing. Following this, the Army raised no objection to Hitler merging the offices of Chancellor and President a few days later. Conservatives both in Germany and abroad were glad that Hitler had disposed of his "wild men", and few bothered to notice that the thuggish hooligans of the SA had now been supplanted by the infinitely more sinister SS.

Heinrich Himmler (here with Heydrich behind him)

Himmler was born in Munich 1900, the second son of the tutor to the Bavarian royal princes. He joined Nazi party in 1923, and took part in the Beer Hall Putsch, then studied agriculture. He married in 1928, to a woman 7 years older than him, and ran a smallholding with a chicken farm. In 1929 he was appointed leader of the SS, at this stage an insignificant organisation within the SA. In 1930 he became a Deputy in the Reichstag. From the Nazi accession to power in 1933, his power grew constantly. His first post was as chief of police for Munich; then in 1934 he took control of the Gestapo and helped organise the Night of Long Knives; and in 1936 he became Minister of Police for the whole of Germany. In 1943 he became chief of the Replacement Army.

Himmler was the only leading Nazi whose power constantly increased, and whose career never suffered setbacks. He was a colourless personality, without any obvious charisma or natural authority, and his only positive characteristics seemed to be his conscientiousness and firm faith in Nazi ideals. His frequent calls for ruthlessness only seemed to mask his own squeamishness (the only time he witnessed a killing, he was very upset), but he appeared totally impervious to the terror and suffering of his victims.

He had a strongly puritan streak; he constantly stressed the need for obedience and discipline, and disapproved of the crude, lawless violence of the SA. He was extremely superstitions: he firmly believed in Nazi racial theories, and was also interested in astrology, occultism, fringe medicine etc. However, unlike most mediocre cranks, Himmler was able to recruit men far more able than himself, and retain their loyalty. He was very dependent on the far more talented Heydrich, and the SS leadership was full of highly intelligent young law graduates.

Himmler came to oversee not only police and intelligence work, but also the vast empire of concentration camps, the deportation and extermination of Jews, and his own field army, the Waffen-SS (Himmler proved to be an extremely bad military commander!)

His fundamental lack of reality was shown near the end of the war, when he put out feelers to see whether the Allies would accept him as leader of a post-Hitler government, and even tried to open negotiations with the World Jewish Congress. (“It’s time we Nazis and Jews buried the hatchet”, he said!). The surviving SS were severely disillusioned by this “betrayal”, and one of Hitler’s last actions was to expel Himmler from the Nazi party.

As Germany collapsed, Himmler tried to escape with false identity papers, but was interned as a suspect by British forces and poisoned himself when he realised he was about to be unmasked.

Someone once commented to Hermann Goering that Himmler didn't have a brain. "Yes he does!" replied Goering, "The brain is called Heydrich!"

Reinhard Heydrich

Heydrich was born in 1904, the son of a musician, and was widely believed to be partly Jewish (which, however, was never proved). He was always arrogant, a loner, greedy for power, and found it hard to form normal relationships. His first career was as a naval officer, but in 1931 was forced to resign for ungentlemanly conduct. He then joined the SS, where Himmler was looking for someone to run an intelligence-gathering and security organisation. Heydrich convinced Himmler that he had been a security expert in the navy: in fact he had no experience of the work, but was able to bluff Himmler, who was equally ignorant of the subject!

Heydrich’s cleverness, hard work and ruthlessness quickly made him Himmler’s indispensable No. 2 in the S.S. He set up his own Security Department (SD), dedicated to gathering intelligence, including on the other Nazi leaders, and recruited some exceptionally bright young men to staff it. As Himmler rose to take control of all the German police forces, Heydrich rose with him, and became chief of the Security Police in 1936. He helped plan the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, and the overthrow of the generals Blomberg and Fritsch in 1938.

When the war came, Heydrich set up the Reich Security Head Office (RSHA) to co-ordinate all police and intelligence work throughout occupied Europe. Soon only Military Intelligence (Abwehr) under Admiral Canaris was outside Heydrich’s control. He organised the “Night and Fog” operation to exterminate any possible resistance leaders in Poland, and the “Einsatzgruppen” (Hit Squads) in Russia for the mass killings of Jews. In summer 1941 Goering authorised Heydrich to carry out a “final solution to the Jewish question”, and in early 1942 he chaired the Wannsee Conference, where plans for the killing of all Europe's Jews were announced.

In late 1941 Heydrich was sent to Prague to govern occupied Bohemia (the modern Czech Republic), whilst retaining control of the RSHA. Here in May 1942 he was assassinated by a hit squad of Czechs specially trained in Britain. Although he was given a lavish funeral, his colleagues in the Nazi leadership were probably relieved to see him dead. He is considered the Nazi most likely to have succeeded Hitler, had Hitler died suddenly. Unlike the deeply superstitious Himmler, he seems to have had no beliefs at all, apart from an obsessive greed for power. Although Heydrich was violently anti-Christian, Himmler doubted whether he was really an ideologically committed antisemite, and considered that, behind his front as a compulsive achiever, he was “at heart, a deeply unhappy man”.


The SS (Schutzstaffel, Protection Squad, or Blackshirts) was originally a personal bodyguard for Hitler within the SA, numbering no more than 180 men, but it grew rapidly in size and importance. Himmler saw its role as more than just a policing body; it should be the ideological and racial elite of the new Germany: pure-blooded Aryans, highly disciplined and fanatically dedicated to Nazi ideals. He set out to recruit a better type of men than the crude street-fighters of the SA.

By 1933 the SS had expanded to 50,000 members, and by 1939 to 200,000. Entry was made deliberately difficult, and before the war a large majority of applicants were turned down. A recruit had to prove his Aryan ancestry back to the 18th century; he could not marry without permission, and his bride also had to undergo a racial check. The SS bore resemblances to the orders of fighting monks in the Middle Ages: the Templars and Teutonic Knights, and there was a strong element of strange quasi-occult rituals that stemmed from Himmler's superstitious mind.

The original formation was the "Allgemeine-SS" (General, or All-purpose), bringing together all members, salaried, part-time or honorary; divided into regiments and squads, with officers having ranks parallel to those of the regular army, under Himmler as Reichsfuehrer. But within the SS different functions emerged: the Waffen-SS came to be practically a separate army, with its soldiers noted for their fanaticism in combat, the WVHA section was responsible for administration of the concentration camps and the "Deaths-head" SS provided the camp guards (these tended to be of a rather lower class: ex-soldiers unable to become army officers because they lacked the educational qualifications, who were unsettled and often unemployed in civilian life, and rarely rose above the rank of Major in SS ranks)

As Himmler's power grew, he used his SS to take on more and more functions. He ordered that in each district the local SS commander must also be the chief of police. The SS increasingly ran a vast slave-empire in the concentration camps, where SS doctors conducted medical experiments on the inmates. The "Lebensborn" organisation attempted to breed the master race of the future. The campaign to exterminate the Jews was spearheaded by the SS, and concentration camps such as Auschwitz were a vast slave-manned economic empire in their own right.

The SD was organised by Heydrich within the SS. It was an intelligence-gathering body, without powers of arrest, whose function was to keep under investigation any likely opponents of the regime, "to provide the authorities with a comprehensive mosaic picture", so that action could be taken. (Files were also kept on the Nazi leaders themselves!) The work of the SD therefore overlapped with that of the Gestapo, and the two organisations were to some extent rivals; typical of the administrative chaos that prevailed in Nazi Germany. The bright young graduates whom Heydrich recruited for the SD tended to look down on the less-educated career policemen who made up the Gestapo. It was only in 1939 that the two were co-ordinated together in the RSHA. But Heydrich did not allow his appointees to be mere desk-warriors: when the war came, he sent them out to lead teams of killers!

(Next time: The Gestapo and related topics)
There is, of course, an enormous literature on Nazi Germany, but for a biographical approach to the subject I would greatly recommend "The Face of the Third Reich" by Joachim Fest.