Revolutionary Train Ride

Catherine Merridale, Lenin on the Train 

            On April 9, 1917, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Vladimir Lenin, secretively boarded a train in Zurich, Switzerland, that was headed for Petrograd (today’s St. Petersburg), then the capital of Russia.  The train left Zurich on its journey just days after the United States had entered World War I on the side of Russia and its allies, Great Britain and France.  Over the course of 8 days, Lenin and a group of 32 fellow Bolsheviks and their families traveled 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers). They passed through Germany, then Russia’s battlefield enemy, crossed the Baltic Sea by ferry to neutral Sweden and on to Finland (at the time part of the Russian empire), before arriving at Petrograd’s famous Finland Station on April 16, 1917.  Barely six months later, in November 1917, 100 years ago last month, Lenin and his Bolshevik cohorts had seized control of the reins of power in Russia and declared a new revolutionary government in the world’s largest nation-state, with Lenin at its head.

           Lenin’s trip from Zurich to Petrograd via train is the centerpiece of Catherine Merridale’s incisive, often-riveting Lenin on the Train, in which she recounts in detail what she aptly terms a “journey that changed the world” (p.5).  Merridale, author of several other books on Russia and the Soviet Union, also provides a close look at the world Lenin inhabited in the immediate weeks and months before and after his train trip, while stopping short of the events of the 1917 November Revolution (often termed the “October Revolution,” due to the 13-day difference between the Julian calendar employed in Russia at that time and that utilized in most of the rest of the world).  She has done extensive digging into the archives and historical records of Russia, Germany, France and Britain to produce a nuanced picture of these crucial months in 1917. Her account benefits from detailed portraits of the numerous people who surrounded and interacted with Lenin in Switzerland, Germany, and Russia, and of course during the notorious train ride.

            Lenin’s ride back to his home country in April 1917 was precipitated by Russian Tsar Nicolas II’s stunning abdication a few weeks previously, abruptly ending the nearly 300-year Romanov dynasty.  Russia at the time of the Tsar’s abdication was a country seething with anger and falling into chaos. Workers were striking over food shortages and civil unrest was spreading from Petrograd across the country, all at a time when Russia’s war with Germany and Austria-Hungary was going poorly, with alarming desertion levels among its demoralized troops.  The State Duma, a parliamentary body dating from Russia’s 1905 Revolution that had shared power with the Tsar, conferred authority upon what came to be known as the Provisional Government, a caretaker institution charged with maintaining order and continuity until more permanent institutions could be established. Many Russian reformers and revolutionaries saw the Provisional Government as a step toward liberal, Western-style democracy.

            Not Lenin.  A fiery but uncommonly focused revolutionary from a decidedly bourgeois family, Lenin led the Bolsheviks, the most militant of the many revolutionary and reform groups that had pressed for changes in the Tsarist regime in Russia’s 1905 Revolution (“Bolshevik” was Lenin’s term, “majority men,” coined prior to the 1905 Revolution and intended to contrast with the other anti-Tsarist forces, the “Mensheviks,” literally “minority men” but by 1917 far more numerous than the Bolsheviks).  Lenin had spent much of his life since 1905 in exile, out of reach of the Tsars and their heavy-handed methods.  At the time of the Nicholas II’s abdication, he was in Zurich, where he was spending his daytime hours in the city’s library, reading and writing, theorizing and fantasizing about the coming world revolution that would bring down capitalism and imperialism. Lenin at this stage in his life was, as a contemporary put it, the “only man for whom revolution is the preoccupation twenty-four hours a day, who has no thoughts but of revolution, and even in his sleep dreams of nothing but revolution” (p.78).

            Once he learned that the Tsar had abdicated, Lenin was naturally more than eager to get back to Petrograd and put his revolutionary stamp on the emerging post-Tsarist regime.  In crossing Germany to return home, Lenin’s party benefitted from the unexpected cooperation of the German High Command.  But the extent of that cooperation remains unresolved to this day.  Was Lenin a German spy or agent? Did Germany acquiesce in the trip across its territory with the expectation that Lenin’s return to Russia would lead to its withdrawal from the war, thereby freeing Germany to fight on a single front against it British and French enemies?  Merridale does not shy away from addressing these still open questions.

          Throughout, Merridale provides a close up look at Lenin during his most pivotal period, emphasizing the forcefulness of his convictions while treading lightly over the ruthlessness of his character.  The Lenin who arrived in Petrograd on April 16, 1917, really believed that the world was on the edge of a worldwide proletarian revolution; that the revolution had already started in Russia but would not be restricted to her  boundaries (more conventional Marxist wisdom held that the revolution would start in Germany; Russia was considered too backward and insufficiently industrialized); and that with this revolution, the capitalist and imperialist world of 19th and early 20the century Europe would vanish. Lenin foresaw, as Merridale puts it, a “series of coordinated, pitiless and violent campaigns that would annihilate the twin oppressions of capitalism and empire forever. The bourgeoisie would have to die, the big country estates would burn, and everywhere slave-owners would face enslavement themselves” (p.77).

           When Lenin arrived at the Finland Station armed with this apocalyptic vision, the many anti-Tsarist forces in Russia were in almost complete disarray.  In the weeks that followed, Lenin provided clarity and focus to his Bolshevik followers on two key points which helped propel them to seizure of power a half year later: there would be no compromise between the Bolsheviks and  other anti-Tsarist forces; and there would be no further support for the war among the capitalist and imperialist powers that was ravaging Russia.

* * *

          Lenin and his party traveled in a single wooden train car, painted green, with three second-class and five third class compartments, plus two toilets and a baggage area.  The puritanical Lenin instituted strict rules aboard the train.  Disturbed by the bent of some of his group to sing well into the night, he instituted official times for sleeping. Smoking was allowed only in the toilets, with a system of tickets for their use. Those who wished to use the toilet to smoke were given “second-class” tickets, and had to accord priority to those with “first class” tickets who needed to use the toilet for more basic purposes.

       Before the train left, Lenin had wrenched numerous concessions from the German High Command, the most critical of which was that the car transporting his group was to be treated as an extra-territorial entity, “sealed off from the surrounding world and therefore innocent of any contact with the enemy population” (p.7).  A chalk line drawn on the floor of the car served to demarcate a “border” between “Russia” and “Germany,” with the Russian travelers confined to one side of the line, the German soldiers assigned to guard them on the other. A designated neutral, befittingly a Swiss national, acted as the contact between the passengers and the German soldiers.  Lenin needed to stay in the Russian portion of the car so that he could later say he never set foot in “Germany.”  The High Command also agreed that no passenger could be ordered to leave the train, and that there would be no passport controls and no discrimination against potential passengers on account of their political views.

          The trip took place at a time when Germany yearned to be relieved of its two-front war so that it might concentrate its resources on the Western Front against its British and French enemies, before reinforcements from America could have a significant effect upon the stalemate in the trenches.  If Russia could be persuaded to withdraw from the war, Germany could then “focus all its troops along a single front, crushing the French and British like so many gnats” (p.39-40).   Britain and France, of course, were committed to keeping Russia in the war at almost any cost for precisely this reason.

          By 1917, the inconclusive nature of trench warfare had led all belligerents to search for ways of gaining advantages off the battlefield.  In Germany, foreign ministry officials had come to support using insurgents to destabilize their enemies. They sponsored French military mutineers and Irish nationalists, and even looked at possibilities for sparking rebellion in distant India.  They were thus “quick to grasp [Lenin’s] potential for disrupting Russia’s war effort” and indisputably provided some financial backing to Lenin, what has come to be known as “German gold” (p.7).

          Lenin’s critics and rivals for power seized on the notion of “German gold” to label him a traitor, an agent operating on behalf of the enemy that was slaughtering Russian soldiers.  These charges never receded, and they continue to intrigue contemporary historians.  Merridale evaluates some of the more elaborately documented theories that Lenin was in fact a German agent, and finds them unproven.  In one instance she recounts, in the 1950s renowned diplomat and Russia expert George Kennan examined extensive documentation purporting to show an agency relationship between Lenin and the German government and concluded that the documents were forgeries.

          Lenin himself added to the speculation and conspiracy theories by denying that he had accepted any German assistance. Merridale suggests that, rather than lying about his acceptance of German gold, Lenin could have utilized his acceptance to forge a powerful argument on his own behalf.  A braver Lenin, she contends, might have “boasted of that German cash,” as a means to “help the German proletariat defeat the Kaiser. . . If taking German money was one kind of crime,” Lenin could have argued that “trampling on the people’s dreams, making them fight against their will and even starving them were surely worse. . . [Lenin] might have pointed to the poetry of taking money from the robbers of the poor, whatever country they were from” (p.262).

          Merridale submits that Germany most likely gambled that Lenin’s Bolsheviks were unlikely to achieve power on a long-term basis but could stir up useful “inconclusive civil chaos” (p.56) in the short term to further destabilize and weaken Russia. The Germans seemed to recognize that fomenting revolution was a dangerous idea, given that Germany had its own socialist revolutionaries at home. Lenin in any event arrived in Petrograd amidst the rumors of treachery and treason.

          Most socialists and many revolutionaries at that time, including some members of Lenin’s own Bolshevik party, regarded cooperation with the Provisional Government and bourgeois forces as necessary, at least on an interim basis. Lenin, however, never wavered in his categorical rejection of any compromise, coalition, or cooperation with the Provisional Government or any of the reform elements in Russia. Waiting for the bourgeoisie to turn into a revolutionary force was in Lenin’s view pointless.  The bourgeoisie was inalterably “bent on the defense of property, profit, and caste” (p.227).   Collusion with the Provisional Government would be the “death of socialism” (p.223).

            Scorning the Provisional Government, Lenin saw the key to revolution and subsequent governance of the country in a network of workers’ councils, known as “soviets,” led by the Petrograd Soviet. He rejected the conventional view that the Petrograd Soviet and its counterparts in provincial cities were simply workers’ educational councils designed not to compete with the Provisional Government for power. The soviet system which Lenin envisioned would not be a parliamentary republic, Lenin told his supporters, but rather a “Republic of Soviets of Workers’, Agricultural Laborers’ and Peasants’ Deputies throughout the country, from top to bottom” (p.228). To defend against counter-revolutionary insurgencies, the new revolutionary state would need to be governed by what Lenin termed, in perhaps his most enduring phrase, a “dictatorship of the proletariat” (p.195).

       Lenin further distinguished himself from other revolutionaries and reformers with his uncompromising stance on Russia’s unpopular war. By the time of his return to Petrograd, Russia had sustained nearly 5 million causalities, killed, missing or wounded, a far higher rate than any other belligerent. By some estimates, an additional 1.5 million soldiers had deserted. Arguments about the war had foiled all attempts at unity among the many anti-Tsarist factions. From the war’s outbreak in 1914, a major Russian objective had been to wrestle Constantinople, today’s Istanbul, away from the dying Ottoman Empire, which was allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary. The aspiration for control of Constantinople’s shipping lanes along the Bosporus and Dardanelles survived the Tsar’s abdication.

        Many in the Provisional Government saw the quest for Constantinople as reason enough to remain in the war. Others on the left believed that a more modern, democratic Russia could deliver a quick deathblow to the Kaiser and German imperialism, especially with the United States now fighting alongside Russia and its Western allies.  Russia could then join with revolutionary elements in Germany in establishing a socialism that transcended national boundaries, a position sometimes termed “revolutionary defencism.”

      Lenin would have none of this.  He rejected even the slightest concession to proponents of “revolutionary defencism.” The present conflict, Lenin reminded his followers, “unquestionably remains on Russia’s part a predatory imperialist war” (p.227).  Bourgeois elements, he argued, “could never give up on war because their future was bound to it” (p.224). Lenin was no pacifist, however. Cessation of the capitalist and imperialist war among the great powers must be followed by transnational class warfare against capitalism itself.  Lenin forced these ideas upon his party, and in November 1917 forced them upon the country after he and his Bolshevik cohorts had ousted the Provisional Government in an armed insurgency.

* * *

        Although not detailing the events of the November 1917 insurgency, Merridale argues that Lenin succeeded in that fateful month because he had worn down his opposition by the “force of his conviction.  While others talked and traded exquisite concessions, picking their way along the path of revolution as if they were avoiding mines, Lenin knew where he wanted to go and he knew exactly why.  His energy was prodigious, and he wrote and argued tirelessly, repeating the same themes until his opponents wearied of concocting new rebuttals” (p.230).  Merridale’s book is neither a biography of Lenin nor a comprehensive account of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution; there are plenty of works available on both subjects, including several that have come out during this centennial year of the 1917 Revolution.  But hers is an ideal choice for readers whose goal is to understand what drove Lenin, literally and figuratively, to reorder the course of history.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

December 6, 2017

 

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Filed under European History, German History, History, Russian History

Complementary Lives

Thomas Ricks, Churchill & Orwell:

The Fight For Freedom 

       Winston Churchill and George Orwell seem like an unlikely pairing for a dual biography. They were of different generations — Churchill was born in 1874, Orwell was born as Eric Blair in 1903; they pursued different career paths, Churchill as a career politician par excellence, Orwell as a journalist and writer; and there is no record that they ever met.  In Churchill & Orwell: The Fight For Freedom, Thomas Ricks seeks to give a new twist to both men in a work that, in highly condensed form, emphasizes their complementary lives in the 1930s and 1940s.  Ricks, among the foremost contemporary writers on war, with a talent for explaining complex military operations without over-simplifying, contends that Churchill and Orwell “led the way, politically and intellectually, in responding to the twin totalitarian threats of fascism and communism” (p.3).

       Unlike most of their peers, Ricks argues, Churchill and Orwell recognized that the 20th century’s key question was “not who controlled the means of production, as Marx thought, or how the human psyche functioned, as Freud taught, but rather how to preserve the liberty of the individual during an age when the state was becoming powerfully intrusive into private life” (p.3). The legacies of the two men were also complementary: Churchill’s wartime leadership “gave us the liberty we enjoy now. Orwell’s writing about liberty affects how we think about it now” (p.5).

        Churchill and Orwell further shared an uncommon facility with language: each was able to articulate the challenges which 20th century democracy faced in robust, unflinching English prose.  Churchill was “intoxicated by language, reveling in the nuances and sounds of words” (p.11).  Orwell added several words and expressions to the English language, such as “doublethink” and “Big Brother,” and had a distinct style in examining politics and culture that has become the “accepted manner of modern discussion of such issues” (p.262).

            Ricks identifies additional commonalities in the two men’s backgrounds.  Each had a privileged upbringing.  Churchill was a descendant of the Dukes of Marlborough. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was a prominent Conservative Party Member of Parliament.  Orwell’s father was a high level civil servant in India, where Orwell was born.  Neither felt close to his father.    Both attended “public schools,” upper class boarding schools, with Churchill’s father telling young Winston that he was just another of the “public school failures” (p.9).  Although Orwell once described his background as “lower upper middle class,” he attended Eton, England’s uppermost public school.  Each had experience in Britain’s far-flung empire: Orwell, who was born in India, spent a formative period in the 1920s in Burma as a policeman; Churchill had youthful adventures in India and the Sudan and served as a war correspondent in South Africa during the Boer War, 1899-1902.  Orwell too had a brief stint as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39.

            There is even a mirror image similarity to the two men’s situations in the 1930s. Churchill was a man of the political right who was never fully trusted by his fellow conservatives, and had a nearly complete fallout with the Conservative Party over appeasement of Hitler in the late 1930s.  Orwell was a conventional left-wing socialist until his experiences in the Spanish Civil War opened his eyes to the brutality and dogmatism that could be found on the political left. But their career trajectories moved in opposite directions during World War II and its aftermath. Churchill came off the political sidelines in the 1930s to peak as an inspirational politician and war leader in 1940 and 1941.  Thereafter, Ricks argues, he went into downward slide that never reversed itself.  Orwell remained an obscure, mid-level writer throughout World War II.  His career took off only after publication of his anti-Soviet parable  Animal Farm in 1945, followed four years later by his dystopian classic, 1984.  Orwell’s reputation as a seminal writer, Riggs emphasizes, was established mostly posthumously, after his death from tuberculosis at age 47 in 1950.

          But while Churchill and Orwell recognized the threat that totalitarian systems posed, their political visions were at best only partially overlapping.  The need to preserve the British Empire animated Churchill both during and after World War II, whereas Orwell found the notion of colonization abhorrent.   Orwell’s apprehensions about powerfully intrusive states also arising in the West most likely intrigued but did not consume Churchill. As long as Britain stayed out of Stalin’s clutches, it is unlikely that Churchill fretted much about it evolving into the bleak, all-controlling state Orwell described in 1984.  Ricks’ formulation of the common denominator of their political vision – the need to preserve individual liberty in the face of powerful state intrusions into private life – applies aptly to Orwell.  But the formulation seems less apt as applied to Churchill.

* * *

          Riggs’ dual biographical narrative begins to gather momentum with the 1930s, years that were  “horrible in many ways.”  With communism and fascism on the rise in Europe, and an economic depression spreading across the globe, there was a “growing sense that a new Dark Age was at hand” (p.45). But for Churchill, the 1930s constituted what he termed his “wilderness years,” which he spent mostly on the political sidelines.  By this time, he was considered somewhat of a crank within Conservative Party circles, “flighty, with more energy than judgment, immovable in his views but loose in party loyalties” (p.54).  He had spent much of the 1920s railing against the threat that Indian independence and the Soviet Union posed to Britain. In the 1930s he targeted an even more ominous menace: Adolph Hitler, whose Nazi party came to power in Germany in 1933. One reason that Churchill’s foreboding speeches on Germany were greeted with skepticism, Ricks notes, was that he had been “equally intense about the dangers of Indian independence” (p.47).

      Churchill’s fulminations against the Nazi regime were not what fellow Conservative Party members wanted to hear. Many British conservatives regarded Nazi Germany as a needed bulwark against the Bolshevik menace emanating from Moscow. Churchill’s rupture with Conservative party hierarchy seemed complete after the 1938 Munich accords, engineered by Conservative Party Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, which dismembered the democratic state of Czechoslovakia.  For Churchill, Munich was a “disaster of the first making . . . the beginning of the reckoning” (p.60).  He issued what Ricks terms an “almost Biblical” warning about the consequences of Munich: “This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and marital vigor, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time” (p.60).

            Orwell in the 1930s, still using his birth name Eric Blair for many purposes, was a “writer [and] minor author of mediocre novels that had not been selling well” (p.2-3).  Yet he had already discovered what Ricks terms his “core theme,” the abuse of power, a thread that “runs throughout all his writings, from his early works to the very end” (p.23).  When civil war broke out in Spain in 1936, Orwell volunteered to fight for the Republican side against Franco’s Nationalist uprising. What Orwell saw during his seven months in Spain “would inform all his subsequent work,” Ricks writes. “There is a direct line from the streets of Barcelona in 1937 to the torture chambers of 1984” (p.65).

         Orwell joined a unit known by the Spanish acronym POUM, Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, the Workers Party of Unified Marxism, which Ricks describes as a “far-left splinter group. . . vaguely Trotskyite,” politically most distinctive for being anti-Stalinist and thus “anathema to the Soviet-controlled Communist Party in Spain” (p.67).  The NKVD, the Russian spy agency deeply involved in Spain during the Civil War, targeted the Spanish POUM for liquidation. “When the crackdown on POUM came in the spring of 1937,” Ricks writes, “Orwell and his fellows would become marked men” (p.68).

          Orwell almost died in May 1937 when he was shot in the neck while fighting against Franco’s insurgents in Barcelona. He was evacuated to Britain to recuperate. While in Britain, the Spanish Communist Party officially charged Orwell and his wife with spying and treason.  During his recuperation, Orwell wrote Homage to Catalonia, his most noteworthy book to date, in which he hammered two main points: “The first is that Soviet-dominated communism should not be trusted by other leftists. The second is that the left can be every bit as accepting of lies as the right” (p.76).  Orwell “went to Spain to fight fascism,” Ricks writes, “but instead wound up being hunted by communists. This is the central fact of his experience of the Spanish Civil War, and indeed it is the key fact of his entire life” (p.44). In Spain, Orwell “developed his political vision and with it the determination to criticize right and left with equal vigor” (p.77).

          The Soviet Union’s non-aggression pact with Germany, executed in August 1939, in which the two powers agreed to divide much of Eastern Europe between them, was a “final moment of clarity” for Orwell. “From this point on, his target was the abuse of power in all its forms, but especially by the totalitarian state, whether left or right” (p.82).  The pact “had the effect on Orwell that the Munich Agreement had on Churchill eleven months earlier, confirming his fears and making him all the more determined to follow the dissident political course he was on, in defiance of his mainstream leftist comrades” (p.81).

          Churchill in Ricks’ interpretation peaked in the period beginning in May 1940, when he became Britain’s Prime Minister at a time when Britain stood alone in Europe as the only force fighting Nazi tyranny. “These were the months in which Churchill became England’s symbolic rallying point” (p.110).  In June 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and, suddenly, Churchill’s nemesis from the 1920s was Britain’s ally.   “Any man or state who fights on against Nazism will have our aid,” Churchill told the British public in a radio broadcast.  “It follows, therefore, that we shall give whatever help we can to Russia and the Russian people” (p.142-43). When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the United States in December 1941, just as suddenly Churchill had a second powerful ally.

           In a chapter on the fraught months between May 1940 and December 1941, entitled “Fighting the Germans, Reaching Out to the Americans,” Ricks analyzes Churchill’s speeches as Prime Minister, still “good reading seventy-five years after their delivery” (p.110). He gives particular attention to Churchill’s speech to the United States Congress in late December 1941, in which the Prime Minister presented to representatives of his new wartime ally his vision of the Anglo-American partnership in wartime.  The address was what Ricks describes as a rhetorical “work of political genius . . . more than a speech, it was the diplomatic equivalent of a marriage proposal”(p.149-51).   But with that speech, Ricks argues, Churchill’s best days were already behind him.

            The 1943 meeting in Tehran between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin was a turning point for Churchill, the “first time Roosevelt began to act as if he held the senior role in the partnership. It was in Iran that Churchill realized that his dream of dominating a long-term Anglo-American alliance would not come to fruition” (p.169).  Churchill flew out of Tehran “in a black mood, anguished by the passing of British supremacy in the world. After that conference, his personality seemed to change. The dynamo of 1940 became the sluggard of 1944 – increasingly forgetful, less eloquent, and often terribly tired, napping more often and sleeping in late many mornings” (p 171).  Churchill was “off his game at the end of the war and after. The plain facts of British decline were becoming harder to ignore. Churchill’s oratory of this period ‘seemed in danger of degenerating into mere windy bombast’” (p.220), Ricks writes, quoting historian Simon Schama.

          As World War II loomed, Orwell was “seen as a minor and somewhat cranky writer” (p.82), now out of favor with many of his former allies on the political left.  He was not able to enlist in the army because of ill health.  Yet, World War II “energized” him as a writer. Although the war “seemed to knock fiction writing out of Orwell for several years. . . [i]n 1940 alone he produced more than one hundred pieces of journalism – articles, essays, and reviews” (p.127).  His writings showed consistently strong support for Churchill’s war leadership — Churchill was the “only Conservative Orwell seems to have admired” (p.129).

           Orwell joined the BBC’s Overseas Service in August 1941. “There, for more than two years, working on broadcasts to India, he engaged in the kind of propaganda that he spent much of his writing life denouncing,” putting himself “in an occupation that ran deeply against his grain” (p.143).  Orwell’s tenure at the BBC “intensified his distrust of state control of information” (p.145). During the war years, Orwell began work on Animal Farm, published in 1945 as the war ended.

           Animal Farm is a tale of “political violence and betrayal of ideals” (p.176), in which the pigs lead other farm animals in a revolt against their human masters, only to become themselves enslavers. In Animal Farm, the pigs “steadily revise the rules of the farm to their own advantage, and along with it their accounts of the history of farm.”  A single sentence from the book — “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” — may be Orwell’s most lasting contribution to modern thought about totalitarianism.  Animal Farm foreshadows the concern that dominated 1984, that controlling the past as well as the present and future, was an “essential aspect of total state control” (p.178-79).

        Orwell was dying of tuberculosis with just seven months to live when 1984 was published in June 1949 (Orwell apparently chose his title by reversing the digits “4” and “8” of 1948, the year he finished the work). The 1943 Tehran conference influenced the world that Orwell described in 1984, consisting of three totalitarian super states, Oceania, Eastasia, and Euroasia, with England reduced to “Airstrip One.” The novel’s hero is a “miserable middle-aged Englishman” (p.225) named Winston Smith. It is unclear whether Orwell’s selection of the name had any relationship to Churchill. Riggs points out that Winston Smith’s life in England bore far more similarities to Orwell’s life than to that of Churchill.

           Smith’s world is one of universal surveillance, where the state’s watchword is “Big Brother is Watching You,” and the ruling party’s slogan’s are “”War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength.”  Objective reality “does not exist or at least is deemed to be illegal by the all-seeing state” (p.226).  Smith’s most significant act is “simply to observe accurately the world around him. Collecting facts is a revolutionary act. Insisting on the right to do so is perhaps the most subversive action possible” (p.226-27).  At a time when Churchill was warning the post-war world that the Soviet Union had erected an Iron Curtain across Europe, 1984 was driven by Orwell’s concern that powerful states on both sides of the curtain would not only forbid people to express certain thought but would also tell them what to think.

          The immediate reaction to both Animal Farm and 1984 was middling at best. It was not until after Orwell’s death in 1950 that the two works attracted worldwide attention and made the former Eric Blair a familiar household name. How Orwell’s reputation took off after his death constitutes a major portion of Ricks’ treatment of Orwell.  Based upon references, allusions, and tributes appearing daily in the media around the world, Ricks concludes, Orwell is a “contemporary figure in our culture. In recent years, he may even have passed Churchill, not in terms of historical significance but of current influence. It has been one of the most extraordinary posthumous performances in British literary history” (p.245).

         While Orwell in 1984 “looked forward with horror,” Churchill spent the post war years working on his war memoirs, “looking back in triumph” (p.221).  Ricks provides an extensive analysis of those memoirs.   Orwell’s last published article was a review of Their Finest Hour, the second of the Churchill war memoirs. Orwell concluded his review by describing Churchill’s writings as “more like those of a human being than of a public figure” (p.233), high praise from the dying man.  There is no indication that Churchill ever read Animal Farm, but he may have read 1984 twice.

* * *

          The Fight for Freedom is not a dual biography based on parallelism between two men’s lives, unlike  Allan Bullock’s masterful Parallel Lives, Hitler and Stalin. Nor is there quite the parallelism in Churchill and Orwell’s political visions that Ricks assumes.  Other factors add a strained quality to The Fight for Freedom.  Numerous digressions fit awkwardly into the narrative: e.g., Margaret Thatcher as “Churchill’s rightful political heir” (p.142); Tony Blair trying to be Churchillian as he took the country into the Iraq war; Martin Luther King forcing Americans to confront the realities of racial discrimination; and Keith Richards defending his dissipated life style by pointing to Churchill’s fondness for alcohol.  There is also a heavy reliance upon other writers’ assessments of the two men. The text thus reads at points like a Ph.D. dissertation or college term paper, with a “cut and paste” feel.  Then there are many Orwell quotations that, Ricks tells us, could have been written by Churchill; and Churchill quotations that could have come from Orwell’s pen. All this suggests that the threads linking the two men may be too thin to be stretched into a coherent narrative, even by a writer as skilled as Thomas Ricks.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

November 11, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under British History, English History, European History, History, Language, Political Theory, Politics

Women Pressing For Seditious Ideas

 

Shirin Ebadi, Until We Are Free:

My Fight for Human Rights in Iran 

 

Manal Al-Sharif, Daring to Drive:

A Saudi Woman’s Awakening 

             Anyone with an elementary understanding of today’s world knows that there is a major geopolitical tug of war going on between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two regional powers competing for influence across the Middle East.  That same anyone knows that Saudi Arabia and Iran represent home bases for the two major branches of contemporary Islam: Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran.  And of course our anyone knows that Saudi Arabia is a close ally of the United States, whereas Iran is considered to be among the world’s rogue nations, a member of an “axis of evil,’ to use President George W. Bush’s memorable phrase.  Iran is the seat of the ancient and venerable Persian Empire; it became known officially as Iran only in the 1930s.  Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, was carved out of vast tribal areas in the 1930s. Iran shocked the world in 1979 when it overthrew Shah Reza Pahlavi to establish what is formally known as the Islamic Republic, where ultimate power rests in the hands of a theocratic Supreme Leader. Saudi Arabia is ruled by the House of Saud, the “last significant absolute monarchy on earth” (p.12), to quote from Karen House’s incisive study of Saudi Arabia, reviewed here in October 2014.

          Within the last year, a woman from each published a noteworthy memoir detailing her struggle on behalf of human rights in her country: Shirin Ebadi, Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran; and Manal al-Sharif, Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening.  Ebadi is a human rights lawyer who won a Nobel Prize in 2003 for her human rights work in Iran, especially on behalf of women, children and refugees. She was both the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to receive the coveted award – and later became the first recipient to have her medal confiscated by the state.  Al-Sharif won international acclaim in 2011 for leading a campaign in Saudi Arabia to allow women to drive. That campaign landed the divorced single mother in a Saudi jail, arrested for what Saudi authorities termed, with no sense of irony, “driving while female.”  Just last month, the Saudi government announced that women will be immediately eligible to apply for drivers’ licenses, and will actually be permitted to drive on Saudi roads a mere nine months hence, in June 2018.

        The two authors are a generation apart: Ebadi was born in 1947, al-Sharif in 1979.  But they have much in common. Each is a devout, practicing Muslim. Throughout as-Sharif’s memoir, references to the Prophet Muhammad are invariably followed by PBUH in parenthesis, “peace be unto him.” Each has a deep love for her home country. “The story of Iran is the story of my life,” Ebadi writes at the outset of her memoir. “I am so attached to my country. . . [and] feel a duty to my nation that outweighs everything else” (p.3).  Al-Sharif expresses similar sentiments throughout her memoir.  Yet, today both live in exile far from home, Ebadi in Great Britain, al-Sharif in Australia.

        The two memoirs are of almost identical length. Although they tell very different stories, each author must confront the inescapable reality that in her home country, religion and the state are inextricably intertwined.  Shite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia may be fierce geopolitical rivals, with religious clerics in each dismissing the other’s brand of Islam as heretical.  But in both countries, Islamic law, norms and customs are the touchstone for governance, with individual rights and the rule of law brutally subordinated to perceived national interests.  Neither offers a hospitable environment for resourceful, independent women pressing for seditious ideas like human rights and full equality for all citizens.

* * *

          During the regime of Shah Pahlavi, Shirin Ebadi became a high-ranking judge in Iran, one of the country’s few female judges, even though she had opposed the regime.  Initially a supporter of the 1979 revolution, Ebadi quickly ran afoul of the new, radical Shiite regime. When ruling clerics determined that Islam prohibits women from serving as judges, she was stripped of her judgeship and demoted to the position of court clerk.  She then embarked on a far more perilous career course as a human rights lawyer, a niche within the legal profession which, to put it mildly, was destined to displease Iranian authorities.

          Ebadi used the money from her Nobel prize to found the Defenders of Human Rights Center, a focal point for work on human rights within Iran.  She led a movement to remove landmines remaining from Iran’s eight-year war with Iran, and to provide assistance to victims injured by the mines; she defended religious minorities facing discrimination in the fiercely Shiite republic: and she helped organize a movement termed the One Million Signature campaign, which focused on demonstrating how Iranian laws hurt women of all social classes and religious beliefs.  Her memoir gains momentum when one of its two major villains, Mohammed Ahmadinejad, was first elected president in 2005.

           Ahmadinejad freely used and abused religion to consolidate power. He unleashed religious extremists who filled the ranks of the state’s voluntary militias, “encouraging their most intolerant attitudes and giving them subtle signals that should they wish to punish those who deviated from their strict view of Islam, the state would not get in their way” (p.59). These extremists broke up anti-state lectures, set up check points to harass youth listening to Western music in their cars, and raided private parties where people might have been daring to have fun. At some point during Ahmadinejad’s first term, Ebadi went from being a thorn in the government’s side to what it considered an enemy of the state, part of a global conspiracy to undermine the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

           The task of following Ebadi and seeking to silence her fell to the memoir’s other major villain, Mr. Mahmudi, a particularly enterprising intelligence agent.  Mahmudi began watching Ebadi’s every move with an obsession that never waned. Because she was too visible and too powerful for the state to target directly, Mahmudi and his colleagues systematically undercut all the constituent pieces of her professional and personal life.  Hounded by Mahmudi, the Defenders of Human Rights Center was forced to shut down, closing the “main intellectual and social hub for those in Tehran working on civic activism” (p.103).

             When state authorities took away her daughter’s passport, it became clear to Ebadi that the state had started going after her family. “It wasn’t just content with me anymore. I had witnessed this over the years with many of my clients, dissidents and activists whose relatives suffered state intimidation, were hassled and threatened and sometimes blackmailed or imprisoned, all ‘collateral damage’ in the quest to get the original target – the dissident or activist or journalist in question – to drop their activities. It was the dirtiest of the methods the security agencies used, exploiting these families and their emotional ties” (p.126).

            The 2009 presidential election, pitting Ahmadinejad against reform candidate Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister, and one other candidate, proved to be a fateful turning point for Ebadi. Ahmadinejad’s popularity prior to the elections had “sunk abysmally; Iranians widely reviled him for ruining the economy and for the repressiveness of his rule” (p.131). Mousavi seemed to have a genuine chance to replace Ahmadinejad.  Yet, in an election widely considered to have been plagued with irregularities, Ahmadinejad was declared the winner after the first round with 62% of the vote.   Huge numbers of Iranians took to the streets to protest the results.

           Ebadi happened to be in Majorca at a conference in the immediate aftermath of the elections. Her husband and professional colleagues counseled against her returning to Tehran amidst the civil unrest and ensuing government crackdown.  As the crackdown continued, Ebadi came to the realization that should she return to her native country, her passport would surely be confiscated, she would likely be jailed, and perhaps even executed.  She therefore elected to stay abroad, relocating to London with her daughter, who had taken a job there.  But the attempts of Mr. Mahmudi and fellow state intelligence agents to destroy Ebadi intensified rather than diminished while she was out of the country.

          Most heartbreakingly, her husband of more than thirty years was the victim of a state sexual blackmail plot to place him in a compromised position with another woman, a former girlfriend prior to his marriage to Ebadi. The plot marked the beginning to the breakup of what had been a solid, loving relationship.  Disappointed that her husband had succumbed to the state-manufactured temptation, Ebadi writes that she was “even more furious, more floored, by the depth of evil of the intelligence agents. Their malice and cunning truly had no limit: they were prepared to do anything – crush people’s children, their marriage – to achieve their ends.”  She asked herself, “How much could they take away from one person? They had taken my judgeship, my entire life’s ambition; when I resurrected myself and built a human rights center, they took that too; with their violence and electoral fraud, I had lost my homeland.  And now they had tried to take away my husband” (p.166-67).

        Iranian tax authorities subsequently reinterpreted Iranian law to conclude that Ebadi owed taxes on her Nobel Prize, a matter that seemed clearly settled at the time the prize was awarded. This required Ebadi to sell what seems like a very comfortable Tehran apartment to pay back taxes, along with a rural property her family was particularly attached to. The amounts generated by the sale of the properties proved insufficient to satisfy the tax claims, and Ebadi became a formal debtor to the Islamic Republic. The secure family life Ebadi had known in Tehran was thus shattered beyond repair. She was hopelessly in debt to the state for alleged back taxes; she separated and then divorced her husband after 30 plus years of marriage; and state authorities briefly confiscated her Nobel medal, until the international outcry forced them to return it to her family.

            In London, Ebadi became active in the Centre for Supporters of Human Rights, supporting pro-democracy elements in Iran by working with other lawyers who had left Iran in the aftermath of the 2009 protests. The memoir ends with Ebadi in Britain, afraid that the intelligence services will target her directly for assassination there, something they had not quite dared to do directly while she was in Iran.  To this day, Ebadi has not returned to Iran.

        Although Ebadi’s memoir lacks detail on precisely why state intelligence services concluded that she was an enemy of the Islamic revolution, her outspokenness as an independent woman was clearly an affront to state authorities. Whether the state would have been quite so ferociously persistent with a male civil rights lawyer is left to the reader’s speculation, but the overall thrust of the 1979 Islamic Revolution has plainly been to try to redefine the status of women. Somehow, Ebadi emphasizes, Iran was able to retain a “burgeoning, vibrant women’s movement. . . [which] had managed to flourish, despite Ahmadinejad’s emergence” (p.68-69).  Literacy among Iranian girls and young women is nearly 99 percent, she indicates, and women make up over 60 percent of all university students.  “[I]f you walk the streets of any Iranian city at rush hour, you will see women streaming out of workplaces, boarding buses and subways alongside men. They are an active, engaged part of public life and they increasingly often serve as primary breadwinners in their households” (p.264).

        Iran has long suffered from honor killings, forced marriages, and domestic violence although, Ebadi notes, with “far less severity than many of its neighbors” (p.264). But the legal structure of the Islamic Republic, based on medieval interpretations of sharia law, “enshrines gender discrimination and violent punishments, including lashing and stoning . . . Iran remains a country where a man can marry up to four wives, where women face enormous challenges securing a divorce, and where a married woman cannot travel without the written permission of her husband.   The list of discriminatory laws that are unfit for Iran’s modern society is long” (p.254-55).  Ahmadinejad “singlehandedly snuffed out [Iran’s] women’s movement and, most dangerously . . . renormalized the idea that women should be open targets for the state and ordinary Iranians alike” (p.263).

           Consequently, the climate for women in contemporary Iran is “deteriorating by the day” (p.262).  Women can no longer work in Tehran’s cafés and restaurants; female musicians are no longer permitted to perform onstage; and female civil servants in Tehran are no longer permitted to work along side men, on the theory that “women working long hours outside the home in the company of male colleagues undermined family life” (p.262). Ahmadinejad instituted gender quotas in state universities, “making it impossible for women to study physics, chemistry, and tens of other subjects” (p.260).  In 2014, authorities in Tehran forbade women from watching the World Cup in public cinemas and cafés, particularly disappointing for young people. These moves were “part of a stealthy segregation plan, deployed piecemeal over time in and across different spheres, that threatened to remake public life in Iran and push women, who participated vibrantly despite the state’s myriad restrictions, to the margins” (p.262).  Treatment of women in Iran thus seems to be headed in a direction similar to that so firmly entrenched in its bitter geopolitical rival, Saudi Arabia.

* * *

          Manal al-Sharif’s memoir makes clear that the interdiction against driving is but one example of the almost unimaginable control and subjugation of women in Saudi Arabia. Saudi women need permission from male guardians to travel, obtain passports, enroll in school, sign contracts, or undergo medical procedures. Most public places, such as parks, beaches, and buses, are rigidly segregated, and public schools are both separate and blatantly unequal. In 2002, fifteen girls died inside a segregated girl’s middle school. The religious police, al-Sharif recounts, barred the girls from exiting through the front door because they were not following proper Islamic dress code. “When the school door was opened and they were finally carried out, it was as charred corpses” (p.66).  At another point in her memoir, al-Sharif describes how she was not allowed to board a public bus because she did not have a male guardian accompanying her. At that point, I screamed to anyone within earshot, using my most profane language, “At least they let Rosa Parks onto the bus, for crying out loud.”

            Yet, in a country ostensibly seeking to modernize, the Saudi ban on women driving stands out as both wildly inefficient and absurdly contradictory. Unless a husband or male family member is available, it requires women to rely upon a male taxi or hired driver for every trip of daily life, such as shopping, commuting to work or taking children to school, not to mention emergency trips to the hospital. Moreover, as al-Sharif points out:

[A] society that frowns on a woman going out without a man; that forces you to use separate entrances for universities, banks, restaurants, and mosques; that divides restaurants with partitions so that unrelated males and females cannot sit together; that same society expects you to get into a car with a man who is not your relative, with a man who is a complete stranger, by yourself and have him take you somewhere inside a locked car, alone (p.10).

            But al-Sharif’s memoir is about far more than her campaign to allow women to drive.  After beginning with her arrest and time in a Saudi women’s prison, it shifts back to tell her life story before finishing by focusing again on the driving campaign. Her story delivers powerful insight into the challenges of Saudi life, particularly for young and intelligent women.

         Al-Sharif grew up in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, in sub-standard housing, without running water or a telephone. Her mother, born and raised in Egypt, attained only a fourth grade education. Her father was an illiterate Saudi taxi driver. Beatings were a regular part of her family upbringing, mostly by her father, occasionally by her mother. Her mother had a fiery temperament and late in life was diagnosed as a likely bipolar schizophrenic. Yet, she also had an uncommon belief in the value of education for her children, and instilled in al-Sharif a thirst for learning.  Al-Sharif excelled at the girls’ schools she attended.

            In one of the book’s most difficult passages, al-Sharif describes in gut-wrenching terms how she was “circumcised” at age 8, subject to female genital mutilation, a practice designed to protect girls from “‘deviant’ behavior by “removing her desire for sex” (p.57). It was a trauma from which she never fully recovered.  A few years later, when al-Sharif told her cousins about her first menstrual period, they “informed me that I could no longer talk to my male cousins, let alone play with them. If one of my male cousins wanted to a walk past where I was sitting, or even enter the house while I was there, I had to first be hidden out of sight” (p.88).  Saudi females, al-Sharif indicates, pass through two stages in their lives. “First, as young girls, they are supervised and monitored; then, as adult women, they are controlled and judged. Their first menstrual cycle is the abrupt turning point. There is no transition into adolescence” (p.89).

          Al-Sharif further complicated her adolescence through a religious conversion that lasted into her early 20s, becoming an ultra-devout, practicing Salafi Muslim. Even by Saudi standards, she stood out for her religiosity, upbraiding family and friends when they were insufficiently observant.  Although she had previously been “crazy over books” (p.73), she abandoned all but religious reading and urged her brother to give up his interest in decadent Western popular music.  At the heart of the Salafi religious ideology, al-Sharif writes, is a “deep belief in Hell,” which led her to an “all-consuming fear that I, as a Muslim, wouldn’t reach the level of righteousness and devotion required to escape condemnation from the eternal hellfires” (p.96).  But the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, led by young Saudi men of her age, transformed her religious convictions. “I could not believe that God would demand the killing of innocent people,” she writes. “I was done with Salafism” (p.133-34).

         After completing university, al-Sharif landed a job as a computer security specialist at Armaco, once Standard Oil’s Saudi outlet, today owned by the Saudi government. But Armaco remains a state within the state, as it as been since its beginnings in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s. Its huge compound, which al-Sharif compares to a “perfect Southern California town” (p.3), was set up to make Saudi Arabia more inviting to expatriate Armaco workers, with housing, shopping and amenities that are unavailable within the rest of the kingdom. Even though the Saudi state now runs Armaco, many of the severe norms and mores of Saudi life do not apply on its compound. For starters, men and women work together in the compound, side by side. Imagine that.

           While working at Armaco, al-Sharif met the man she would marry – and later divorce. Al-Sharif’s account of her courtship is a Saudi version of a more universal eye-on-the-guy tale.  She developed a mad crush on a man she had only seen briefly at work and knew almost not at all.  Somehow, they met and courted in a way that was well at odds with Saudi norms, not least because it was conducted without the initial approval of either family – for a while, without even the knowledge of the families.   But later, both families were brought on board and gave the relationship their blessing.  Al-Sharif and the young man married and had a child together. But they did not live happily ever after.

          Her husband proved to be more traditional than al-Sharif had anticipated in his views of the proper role for a married woman; by Western standards, he was plainly abusive. When the marriage broke apart, al-Sharif was able to maintain something akin to custody over her son. But she had to give him up when Armaco sent her to study in the United States.  Al-Sharif spent a year in New Hampshire, where she learned to drive and obtained not only a driver’s license but also a rental car, paid for by Armaco. It was “no small irony,” she writes, “to think that Saudi Arabia’s largest company was openly paying for a Saudi woman to drive abroad” (p.199).

           Al-Sharif’s year in the United States and her driving experiences there emboldened her.  Upon return to Saudi Arabia, she became active in a group termed Women2Drive, which used Facebook and other social media to attract potential women drivers. Women2Drive followed a 1990 Saudi women drivers’ protest, in which 47 women had driven on city streets for about one-half hour. That protest “stalked them for the rest of their lives” (p.210). The women and their husbands were banned from foreign travel; those who held government jobs were fired; and all became targets of religious condemnation, “denounced as immoral vixens, boldly seeking to destroy Saudi society” (p.210).

          In 2011, the comments on the Women2Drive Facebook page, mostly left by men, were “menacing, saying very directly that our campaign was designed to corrupt young girls and that we were ‘betraying Islam’” (p.214). Al-Sharif nonetheless “clung to the belief that if I could just show Saudi society that no harm would come if a woman drove, many of the other issues surrounding the campaign would simply vanish” (p.221).  She studied the Saudi traffic codes and other relevant legal instruments and concluded that there was no formal legal interdiction against women driving; it was simply a matter of custom.

         In preparation for Women2Drive’s national driving campaign, al-Sharif allowed herself to be filmed driving, with the intention of posting the film on YouTube. She describes her mixed feelings of fear and fearlessness as she pulled out behind the wheel onto a Saudi road in the town of Khobar:

My heart began to beat faster as I turned the key, heard the engine catch, put my foot on the brake, and switched the car into reverse. My decision to drive had been made in a moment of anger, but now I felt pure calm rise up inside me. I was committed to driving because I was convinced, after having read and understood the traffic code, that there was nothing actually forbidding me from doing so (p.224-25).

           Shortly thereafter, however, in the middle of the night, Saudi authorities came to her house to arrest her. She spent nearly two weeks in a Saudi women’s prison, not a pleasant place for women transgressors of Saudi custom and order.  Her imprisonment attracted huge attention within Saudi Arabia and internationally.  The Saudi press accused her of operating as a traitor and spy on behalf of foreign enemies.  Saudi religious clerics denounced her for blasphemy and for seeking to destroy Islam, describing her as a whore.  She was released from prison when her father, two of his cousins, and their tribal chief traveled to the Royal Palace to meet 86-year-old King Abdullah.  Although the King made no commitments at their meeting, al-Sharif was released later that day. By this time, she had become an international celebrity.

          Al-Sharif was named to Time Magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people of 2011 and received the Oslo Freedom Forum’s first Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. She resigned from Armaco when it refused to allow her to travel to Oslo to accept the award.  Notwithstanding her international celebrity status, official Saudi Arabia gave no ground on the issue of women driving. The government endorsed a report in the fall of 2011 warning that if women were allowed to drive, “prostitution, pornography, homosexuality, and divorce would ‘surge,’” and “within ten years, there would be no more virgins” in Saudi Arabia (p.270).

         When death threats against her became too ominous, al-Sharif fled Saudi Arabia for Dubai with her new husband, a Brazilian national whom she had met at Armaco.  She left without her son, whom she had to leave in the custody of her first husband.  In 2014, she gave birth to a second son. She lives today in Sydney, Australia, where her second husband relocated for his work, but returns periodically to Saudi Arabia to see her son from her first marriage.

* * *

          Only the most hard-hearted readers will fail to be stirred by these two valiant women and their stories of overcoming oppression and resisting the bullying of religious and state authorities.  But each has been forced into exile, required to work for change from outside her home country.  Although women behind the wheel may be commonplace in Saudi Arabia by this time next year, I finished the two memoirs thinking that women in both countries seeking full rights as citizens still have a long, uphill drive ahead of them.

Thomas H. Peebles

Bayonne, France

October 24, 2017

 

 

 

 

6 Comments

Filed under Biography, History, Middle Eastern History, Religion

Exuberance That Failed to Last

Robert Worth, A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil,

From Tahrir Square to ISIS 

            The upheaval known as the Arab Spring began on December 17, 2010, when a Tunisian street fruit vendor, Muhammed Bouazizi, doused his body with gasoline and burned himself.  The 26-year old had been distraught over confiscation of his cart and scales by municipal authorities, ostensibly because he lacked a required work permit. Pro-democracy protests throughout Tunisia began almost immediately after Bouazizi’s self-immolation, aimed at Tunisia’s autocratic ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.  Bouazizi died 18 days later, on January 4, 2011. On January 14, 2011, Ben Ali, who had fled to Saudi Arabia, resigned the office he had held since 1987.

          In less than two weeks, pro-democracy demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s strongman president since 1981, took place on Cairo’s Tahrir Square.  On February 11, 2011, Mubarak too resigned his office. By that time, protests against ruling autocrats had broken out in Libya and Yemen. On March 14, 2011, similar protests began in Syria.  Before the end of the year, Yemen’s out-of-touch leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, President of North Yemen since 1978 and of Yemen since the North’s merger with South Yemen in 1990, had been forced to resign; and Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, who had ruled Libya since 1969, was driven from office and shot by rebels. Of the region’s autocrats, only Syria’s Bashar al-Assad still clung to power, and his days too appeared numbered.

           The era of dictators and despots was over in the Middle East, or so it seemed. The stupefying departures in a single calendar year of four of the Arab world’s seemingly most firmly entrenched autocrats prompted many exuberant souls, myself included, to permit themselves to believe that finally, at last, democracy had broken through in the Middle East.  Some went so far as to compare 2011 to 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and countries across Central and Eastern Europe were suddenly out from under Soviet domination.

          But, as we now know, 2011 was no 1989: the euphoria and giddiness of that year have turned to despair. Egypt’s democratically elected president, Muhammad Morsi, was deposed by a military coup and the current government seems as ruthlessly autocratic as that of Mubarak. Assad holds on to power in Syria amidst a ruinous civil war that has cost hundreds of thousands lives and shows few signs of abating.  Yemen and Libya appear to be ruled, if at all, by tribal militias and gangs. Only Tunisia offers cautious hope of an enduring democratic future. And hovering over the entire region is the threat of brutal terrorism, represented most terrifyingly by the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS.

         For those wondering how such high initial hopes could have been so thoroughly dashed, and for those simply seeking to better their understanding of what happened, Robert Worth’s A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, From Tahrir Square to ISIS, should be prescribed reading. A former Middle East correspondent for the New York Times, Worth takes his readers on a personally guided country-by-country tour of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, places that seemed so promising in early 2011, with roughly half the book devoted to Egypt.  As his title indicates, Worth also addresses the rise of ISIS to become what he terms the “great menace of a new age . . . capable of inspiring people as far away as France or even California to murder in the name of God” (p.231).

        Not least among the many virtues of Worth’s perspective upon the various iterations of the Arab Spring is that he does not seek to wrap them into a grandiose overall theory that would explain how the hopeful vision of 2011 unraveled. Although the early message of the Arab Spring now “appears to have been wholly reversed,” Worth writes, each country he treats “fell apart in its own way” (p.4).   Worth focuses on the indigenous forces that propelled the uprisings of 2011, rather than the “mostly secondary” (p.12) role of the United States and European powers. His book is not intended to be a comprehensive history of the Arab Spring but rather, as he puts it, a “much more selective effort to make sense of the fallout”(p.12). He argues that the Arab world had “never built a peaceful model for political succession” and that the pro-democracy activists of 2011 were “spectacularly unprepared for upheaval” (p.8).

      Worth’s perspective sustains its momentum through personal stories of  individuals who experienced the Arab Spring, in a manner reminiscent of Adam Hochschild’s account of the Spanish Civil War, Spain in Our Hearts, reviewed here last month. But unlike Hochschild, Worth portrays men and women he had met and worked with: his professional contacts, acquaintances and, in some cases, personal friends. Their stories humanize the regional upheaval, underscoring its complex and tragic character.

* * *

         Worth was present almost from the beginning of the January 2011 anti-Mubarak demonstrations on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and he writes about them more as a participant than as a journalist observer. He recounts his experience through the eyes of Pierre Siaufi, a 49 year old, 300 pound “slacker and bohemian . . . a benevolent Arab version of Allen Ginsberg” (p.17-18). Siaufi turned his disheveled apartment near Tahrir Square into “ground zero,” the nerve center of the largely leaderless anti-Mubarak protests.  The demonstrators included groups and classes that had previously viewed one another with distrust: Facebook and social media savvy youth, middle class liberals and intellectuals, secularists, Christians and Muslims – including the long suppressed Muslim Brotherhood – even, Worth notes, street vendors from Cairo’s slums and some notorious soccer hooligans.

          For a short period, the unlikely grouping on Tahirir Square seemed almost impossibly united:

There was an emotion in the air that encompassed all of us, made us feel we’d shed our old skins and the past was irrelevant . . . [There was] a sudden shift in perspective, as if Earth had tilted on its axis, allowing you to miraculously see truths that had been hidden from you all along. The tyrant, once vast and august, was now revealed as a laughable old fool . . . Most of all, there was the passionate insistence that the revolution would triumph, that justice would replace injustice, that the country’s problems – its sectarian hatreds, its corruption, its terrorist gangs – were all artificial, trumped up, the cynical props of the old regime. All of it would fade away now that the people were empowered (p.19-20).

Yet Worth’s gut feeling was that this exuberance could not last. He summarizes in italics the views of those around him, which seem to be his own as well: “I know these things are not true. But perhaps, if we will them with enough conviction, they will come true someday” (p.20).

      Worth’s gut proved right. The heady moment on February 11, 2011, when Mubarak stepped aside, led to an Islamic ascendancy, resulting in the election and disastrous presidency of Muhammad Morsi.  Morsi represented Egypt’s infuriatingly complex Muslim Brotherhood, a “religious movement seeking democracy” but including a “more secretive element – with radical spin-offs – bent on implementing Islamic law” (p.132). Under Mubarak, the Brotherhood operated in a “legal shadowland” (p.132), subject to periodic mass arrests.

         After Mubarak’s resignation, the Brotherhood indicated that it would not proffer a candidate for president. But with unexpected success in parliamentary elections in late 2011, it reversed itself.  Morsi, a stubborn organization man with few political skills, was elected president in June 2012. Worth contrasts Morsi with Brotherhood member Muhammad Beltagy, a thoughtful medical doctor in Cairo’s slums, with skills at mediation and conciliation far exceeding those of Morsi.  Beltagy “always looked as if he’d been up all night negotiating a truce and emerged victorious at dawn” (p.128), Worth writes. He suggests that Beltagy might well have avoided the catastrophic consequences of the Morsi presidency had he been willing to serve.

          A decree which Morsi issued in November 2012, granting him broad powers above the courts as the “guardian of the revolution,” precipitated large scale protests and set the stage for the bloody military coup orchestrated by General Abdelfattah al Sisi that deposed Morsi in July 2013, with the support of many secularists and liberals who had previously joined with the Brotherhood in opposing Mubarak. Once in power, Sisi brutally suppressed pro-Islamist demonstrations and arrested most of the Brotherhood leadership.  Almost overnight, the Brotherhood went from the “summit of power to the status of a terrorist group” (p.167). Many Brotherhood members fled the country, with some joining ISIS to fight in Syria and Libya. Beltagy’s daughter was killed in one of the demonstrations and Beltagy found himself jailed and sentenced to death under the military regime.

        Worth places responsibility for the failure of Egypt’s democratically elected government squarely upon Morsi and his “pigheadedness” (p.152), which alienated even his own cabinet ministers.  When faced with organized opposition to his regime, Morsi “sounded as brittle and intransigent as any ancient regime tyrant. He blamed it all on a ‘fifth column’ and refused to give any ground. He wrapped himself in the flag just as Mubarak had, warning against hired thugs and saboteurs, never acknowledging the depth of the anger he had provoked” (p.147).

* * *

         By mid-2011, Tunisia, where the Arab Spring had begun, appeared to be heading in the same calamitous direction as Egypt. In the first parliamentary elections since the uprising, Ennahda, an Islamist party led by Rached Ghannouchi, won a plurality of seats. As in Egypt, the Islamist ascendancy in Tunisia caused alarm throughout the country. But Ghannouchi was the polar opposite of Egypt’s Morsi, a “philosopher-king” (p.207) within Tunisia’s Islamist movement who had lived abroad, spoke several languages, and was reluctant to demonize his political opponents.  In August 2013, Ghannouchi began meeting secretly in Paris with the primary opposition leader, Beji Caid Essebsi.

          Essebsi was Tunisia’s “ remaining elder statesman” (p.200), a rigorous secularist who had served as Interior Minister under Ben Ali’s predecessor, Tunisia’s post-World War II anti-colonialist leader Habib Bourguiba.  Worth provides an affecting fly-on-the-wall account of the discussions between Tunisia’s “two grand old men” (p.221) — Ghannouchi was then 72, Essebsi 86. Although from opposite ends of the social spectrum and opposite sides of Tunisia’s sectarian divide, Ghannouchi and Essebsi found common ground and a way forward. By September 2013, they agreed that Ennahda would cede power to a caretaker government, while a new constitution could be considered.

          In January 2014, Ennahada suffered major loses in parliamentary elections, with Essebsi’s secularist party winning a parliamentary majority. Essebsi was elected president and formed a coalition government with Ennahda. Two deadly terrorist attacks later in 2014 all but destroyed Tunisia’s critical tourist industry and threatened the coalition government, which bent but did not break. By mid-2015, the coalition government was “coalescing and planning reforms, albeit slowly. Most of the Islamists seemed to have come around to the belief in compromise and reconciliation. Leftists spoke optimistically about a working relationship with the people they’d once hoped to eradicate” (p.221).

          The legacy to be granted to Tunisia’s two grand old men, Ghannouchi and Essebsi, remains to be determined, Worth concludes: “The idea that they achieved a historic synthesis, a reweaving of the country’s Islamic and Western ancestries, is an appealing one. And in many ways, Tunisia did seem to have pulled back from the crater’s edge in mid-2015” (p.221). But, five years after Mohamed Bouazizi’s death had set the Arab Spring in motion, most Tunisians “still hoped that their small country could be a model, spreading its dream of reconciliation across a region troubled by war and tyranny. They also knew the same winds could blow in reverse and smash everything they had built” (p.221).

* * *

            Protests against Yemen’s leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, began in the summer of 2010, but gained momentum after the events in Tunisia and Egypt in the winter of 2011.  Saleh was a ruler who, as Worth puts it, brought corruption and manipulation to a “whole new level of cynicism and mastery” (p.98). In the Arab world’s poorest country, he managed to “rake off tens of billions of dollars in public funds for himself and his family” (p.98), becoming richer than Hosni Mubarak. Elevating blackmail into a “tool of the state,” Saleh’s greatest talent was for “corrupting other people . . . He made sure that every potential opponent had dirty money or blood on his hands, or both” (p.98-99).

         By June 2011, anti-Saleh rebels had captured large portions of the country. When Saleh himself was injured in a bombing at a mosque, he fled to Saudi Arabia for treatment, leaving the country rudderless.  In November, he officially resigned his office in exchange for a diplomatically brokered agreement providing him with immunity from prosecution. But the agreement failed to end the fighting among tribal factions. Tribal warfare, “widely viewed as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran” (p.240), continues to this day. Worth tells the story of Yemen through the eyes of Saeed, a grizzled and battered activist who had been fighting the Yemeni regime for four decades and provides the book’s best single line quotation. “I don’t want an Islamic state, I don’t want a Socialist state, I don’t want a one-party state,” Saeed said. “I just want a modern state” — which Worth defines as a “state where citizenship meant something, where the rule of law was respected” (p.100).  Yemen is not there yet.

* * *

            Protests against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya began on February 15, 2011, four days after Mubarak’s fall. The protestors were “met with truncheons, and then with bullets; they picked up weapons almost at once” (p.38-39). Within days, the rebels had driven Qaddafi’s forces out and laid claim to almost half the country. By August 2011, Qaddafi was forced to flee Tripoli. He was captured and killed in October 2011. In a country where clan solidarity and the tradition of blood feuds run deep, Qaddafi left his countrymen with a void: “no army, no police, no unions, nothing to bring them together” (p.38).  ISIS filled part of the void, founding a mini-state in portions of the country, amidst a civil war between competing militias that Worth describes as “so fragmented and mercurial that it defied all efforts to distill a larger meaning” (p.226-27). Libya had become an “archipelago of feuding warlords” (p.38).

* * *

          With Saleh’s resignation and Quaddafi’s death, Syria’s Bashar Assad was — and remains to this day — the last tyrant still standing, with a shaky hold on power amidst a civil war that has destroyed his country and produced one of the 21st century’s most severe humanitarian crisis.  Anti-Assad demonstrations in Syria began after both Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia had been forced out of office, but was triggered by police mistreatment of teenagers arrested in the southern Syrian town of Daraa for writing antigovernment graffiti. Assad determined early on that he would not go down as easily as his Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts.

       Worth presents the sectarian underpinnings to Syria’s civil war through the pairing of two bright women, both in their 20s from opposite sides of the country’s sectarian divide: Naura Kanafani, a Sunni Muslim; and her long-time best friend Aliaa Ali, an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and supporter of fellow Alawite Assad.  Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, approximately 70% of its population, looks down on the impoverished Alawais as heretics and crude mountain people, Worth explains. But Assad’s father, Alawi military officer Hafez al Assad, became Syria’s autocrat-in-charge in 1971. When Hafez died in 2000, his son Bashar, described by Worth as “tall and angular. . . with a birdlike watchfulness and an elongated neck and head that made him look as if he’d been painted by El Greco” (p.67), succeeded him.

          Bashar responded to the March 2011 protests by unleashing his “foot soldiers,” essentially Alawi thugs from the mountains, to counter the protesters. By the end of 2011, forces loyal to Assad were “using tanks and fighter jets to pound whole neighborhoods to rubble. . . [They were] massacring Sunni civilians in the their homes and leaving scrawled sectarian slogans on the doors” (p.68). Best friends Naura and Aliaa, for whom religious differences had previously been irrelevant, began to see the same events differently. Naura was aghast that the regime appeared to be killing innocent people wantonly, while Aliaa attributed such reports to “fake news.” Little by little, Naura and Aliaa began to define each other as the enemy. Their prior friendship “belonged to a world that no longer made sense” (p.95).

          Throughout 2012, the Syrian conflict “spun outward. . . drawing in almost every country in the region and many beyond it” (p.86). The Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah and Shiite Iran supported Assad, with Russian backing. ISIS came into its own in Syria fighting Assad, and seized control of substantial portions of Syrian territory. Western-backed factions also fought Assad, finding themselves uncomfortably on the same side as ISIS. The first wave of anti-Assad rebels, the “urban young men and women who spoke of democracy,” gave way to “legions of young zealots who slipped across the border with holy war and martyrdom and on their minds” (p.80). These zealous migrants, including eager volunteers for suicide missions, helped ISIS become what Worth terms the “most powerful jihadi group in history” (p.175).

      In mid-2013, Worth returned to Syria, where he had previously spent considerable time and nurtured numerous contacts.  This time he barely recognized the country. “Half the country was behind rebel lines, in a zone where Western hostages were bought and sold and beheaded. Most of my Syrian friends had fled and were living in Europe or Beirut or Dubai” (p.87). By the end of 2014, the death toll in Syria exceeded 200,000, with huge waves of migration out of Syria, making their way through Turkey on “rickety boats to Greece and onward to Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, and Germany” (p.230). As a Sunni Muslim, Naura Kanafani was among the hundreds of thousands forced to flee Syria, escaping into Turkey on foot with her mother.

* * *

         Readers convinced that democracy cannot take hold and flourish in the Arab world – or in the Middle East, or in Muslim-majority countries – will have to dig deeply into Worth’s book to find support for their convictions, and they are unlikely to come up with much.  Despite the dashed expectations of 2011, Worth’s dispiriting yet riveting account leaves his readers thinking – or maybe just hoping – that the yearning expressed by his Yemeni contact Saaed for a modern state is unlikely to recede across the Middle East.

Thomas H. Peebles

Aubais, France

September 26, 2017

 

2 Comments

Filed under History, Middle Eastern History

Why Isn’t Russia More Like Us?

Peter Conradi, Who Lost Russia?

How the World Entered a New Cold War 

             In Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War, Peter Conradi, formerly Moscow-based correspondent for Britain’s Sunday Times and presently its foreign editor, looks at Russian history over the past quarter of a century, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, “through the prism of [Russia’s] relations with the West” (p.x).  Given his somewhat overly dramatic title, there is an odd suspense to this otherwise straightforward, solidly written work, as the reader asks along the way, “Well, who really did ‘lose’ Russia?”  Conradi’s narrative invites readers to proffer their own nominees for the person or entity that “lost” Russia.  Only in the final pages does he inform us of his nominee – and no way will I reveal his selection here.  But the real question is not who “lost” Russia — that’s fine for a catchy title, evoking the Cold War, McCarthyism, and the question of the 1950s, who lost China.

            Rather, the questions at the heart of Conradi’s methodical study are why the once promising relationship between Russia and the West evolved into one best described today as adversarial; and, relatedly, why Russia did not follow the path toward Western-style liberal democracy after what looked like an earnest start in the 1990s. There are no simple or single answers to these questions but, by looking at post-Communist Russia’s relationship with the West during the years 1991-2016, Conradi manages to tease out a host of partial answers.  His book went to press in January 2017, during the earliest days of the Trump administration.  He alludes in an afterthought to the possibility of links between the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and the Russian state.  With much on this subject having come to light since the book first appeared, Conradi’s observations are not a reason to read his book.  But the book does provide much needed context to help understand why Russia’s relationship with the West deteriorated to the point where no one should be surprised that Russia deliberately sought to undermine the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

          Conradi dedicates a substantial portion of his work to the personal interactions between the leaders of the United States and Russia over the 25-year period: George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton with Boris Yeltsin; George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin; Barack Obama and first Dimitri Medvedev, then Obama and Putin. He further includes speculation toward the end about how the relationship between Trump and Putin might unfold.  Numerous substantive issues bedeviled the leaders of the two countries between 1991 and 2016, but foremost among them were the intertwined questions of eastward expansion of NATO and Russia’s relationship with Ukraine.

      Throughout the quarter century, Russia and the West maintained entirely different perspectives on NATO’s embrace of the former Warsaw Pact countries once under Soviet control, and its potential embrace of several former Soviet Republics, most notably Ukraine. While the West regarded NATO expansion as a benign extension of universal democratic values to newly independent states, Russia construed expansion as a direct threat to its territorial integrity and geopolitical interests. And although the Soviet Union dissolved peaceably, Ukraine’s independence proved particularly vexing for Russia from the earliest post-Soviet days.

         During the presidency of Vladimir Putin, differences between Russia and the West over these and related issues transformed an uneven and sometimes uneasy partnership between Russia and the West into an adversarial one.   Western triumphalism of the early 1990s, when both Western Europe and the United States basked in their Cold War “victory” over the Soviet Union, plainly fueled Russian resentment. The breakdown of the partnership finds its roots, Conradi contends, in the “inability of both sides to agree on what happened in 1991 . . . and, in particular, [in] Russian resentment at being treated as a vanquished foe” (p.341).  The West underestimated how badly the loses that came with the collapse of the Soviet Union “rankled with Moscow, and how much the Kremlin continued to consider the former Soviet republics as part of its sphere of influence” (p.161).

         By the time Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, ending Dimitri Medvedev’s four-year interregnum, Russia had abandoned any pretense of striving for Western style liberal democracy.  It was now, Conradi writes, “positioning itself as a beacon of traditional, conservative values in a decadent, liberal world” (p,235).  The official narrative was that it had been “duped to believe in the promises of democracy . . . [which] did not work for Russia; the nation was corrupted by Western values and [was] under constant attack from those who would seek to dismantle it” (p.236).  Borrowing from the other portion of Conradi’s title, the world in the 21st century’s second decade had thus entered a “new Cold War,” with a level of hostility between Russia and the West “not seen even at the height of Soviet rule” (p.xiii).

* * *

            Conradi ably captures the momentous changes that ensued in Russia after the Soviet Union abruptly dissolved in December 1991.  He describes January 2, 1992, the first day of Russia’s transition to a free market, as a “life-defining moment. The previous six months had a seen a series of political events, each more dramatic than the last, culminating in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Yet none had such a direct and immediate impact as the Yeltsin government’s decision to end the price controls that had been a feature of Soviet life since the 1920s” (p.20).  The end of price controls was part of a broader process that “challenged everything the Soviets had been brought up to believe in. Buying and selling for a profit had once been denounced as speculation and been punishable with jail. Now it was the foundation of the economy. Money-changing used to be conducted by shady characters on street corners; now it was carried out by financial experts sitting at rows of computer screens in swanky offices” (p.21).

           The early post-Soviet years were a wild and woolly time in Russia, with a mad grab for ownership and control of previously state-owned property. During the 1990s, Russia’s famous oligarchs emerged, some of the richest and, in many cases, most ruthless, businessmen on the planet.  Yet, Conradi notes, the early post-Soviet years also “created more losers than winners, and it took years before living standards drew level even with the last years of the Soviet era. Many people, especially members of the older generations, still felt a sense not so much of liberation but rather of disorientation after so much of what they had been brought up to believe in had been denounced as a lie. There was a feeling of wasted lives, of humiliation and wounded pride” (p.98).

           Conradi nonetheless gives Russia’s first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin — a “charismatic larger-than-life figure whose ruddy cheeks betrayed his weakness for alcohol” (p.3) — high marks for avoiding the type of ethnic and nationalist violence that ravaged the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Yeltsin also steered a new constitution through to adoption by referendum, representing a “break with Soviet practice by, among other things, abolishing the leading role of the Communist (or indeed, any other) Party and guaranteeing a pluralistic political system” (p.47).  Although George H.W. Bush was the American president when the Soviet Union dissolved and Yeltsin rose to power, most of the Yeltsin years corresponded to the Clinton years.

          In a chapter entitled “Bill and Ol’ Boris,” Conradi shows how the two leaders struck up what seemed from the outside to have been a productive relationship between the two countries, with the United States providing substantial assistance to Russia in the hope of establishing a framework for a functioning democracy with a market economy.  Ol’ Boris sometimes chaffed at the nature of the American-Russian partnership, with America always the dominant partner and Russia reduced to a supplicant. He saw a special role for Russia as a regional peacekeeper in the other former Soviet republics – what the Russians termed the “near abroad” — an idea that fell flat with Bill.   More than a little uneasy about Ukraine’s drive for independence, Ol’ Bois periodically objected to Bill’s dogged determination to bring the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe under the NATO umbrella.  NATO’s eastward expansion looked to the Russian president like a “brazen attempt by the West to exploit [Russian] weakness to take over countries formerly part of Moscow’s sphere of influence” (p.64).   “Got to get over it, Boris,” seemed to be Bill’s response. “We don’t mean ya’ll no harm.”

            In his 1999 televised New Year’s address to the Russia people, six months prior to the expiration of his second term, Yeltsin stunned his viewers and the rest of the world by announcing, “in a characteristic piece of theater” (p.106), that he was resigning immediately.  Previously, there had been speculation that he might seek to change the constitution to pursue a third presidential term.  Yeltsin announced that former KGB agent Vladimir Putin, appointed Prime Minister the preceding August, would be his replacement.  Yeltsin was not obligated to anoint a successor. He could have “played the true democrat and not nominated anyone at all, instead creating a level playing field on which rival candidates could compete for votes”(p.322). Conradi suggests that Yeltsin had three candidates in mind; the other two in retrospect seem to have been more likely to continue the country along the road toward liberal democracy.  Yeltsin chose Putin, Conradi argues, because he, Yeltsin,  was “obsessed with securing a guarantee of immunity for himself and the ‘family’ from prosecution for their past misdemeanors” (p.322).

            As a 36 year old KGB agent based in Dresden in 1989, Putin had watched East Germany disintegrate and disappear, demonstrating for him the “frailty of political elites and the ease with which they can be toppled by ‘people power’”(p.110). Prior to his appointment as Prime Minister in August 1999, Putin had served as an assistant city administrator in his native St. Petersburg.   The literature on Putin in English seems to be growing on an almost daily basis, with many works seeking to probe Putin’s psyche to find psychological explanations for why he steered Russia in a direction outwardly different from that of Yeltsin. This is not one of them.  Instead, Conradi systematically shows how more than why the former KGB officer, unlike his predecessor, “pursued policies both at home and abroad that would inevitably challenge the West” (p.322).

* * *

            In the early years of his presidency, Putin, like Yeltsin, said many things that the West wanted to hear about Russia’s quest for democracy and its belief in individual freedom after years of Soviet oppression.  There was even talk about possible Russian membership in the EU and NATO, with Putin recommending that NATO’s focus be shifted to terrorism, piracy and cybercrime.  The initial meetings between Putin and George W. Bush, who had succeeded Clinton in 2001, augured well for the US-Russia partnership. Bush tried to avoid what he considered Clinton’s tendency to hector his Russian counterpart about free markets and attempts to curb freedom of speech.  He famously told reporters after his first meeting with Putin that he had been able to get a sense of the Russian leader’s “soul.”  Having “looked the man in the eye,” Bush said, he found his counterpart to be “straight-forward and trustworthy,” and “deeply committed to his country” (p.137)

            Yet, for all the warm talk, the Bush administration recurrently sent out signals of its “intention to treat Russia as a mid-ranking country rather than a superpower” (p.132-33).  Although Putin was the first world leader to express solidarity with the United States after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 did incalculable damage to U.S.-Russia relations. “A really strong, anti-terrorist international coalition was created after September 2001,” Igor Ivanov, former Russian foreign minister, said. “It was destroyed in 2003 when the Americans decided to start their war in Iraq” (p.203). In Putin’s view, Washington had given itself a “license to support regime change wherever it wished,” with countries closest to Russia geographically and economically “at the top of its hit list”(p.174).

           American support for the pro-Western “Rose” demonstrations in Georgia in 2003 and “Orange” in Ukraine in 2004 — the so-called “Color Revolutions”  – aroused Putin’s fury because of the “existential threat” which they appeared to pose to the Kremlin (p.173).  Georgians and Ukrainians had:

provided a compelling model of how ordinary people could mobilize in a post-Soviet society to prevent a discredited regime from clinging to office – with more than a helping hand from the CIA, in Putin’s view. Putin’s concern was that Bush, with his determination to promote democracy around the world, might now try to encourage similar such forces in Russia to challenge Putin’s own hold on power (p.173).

Conradi perceives a “growing assertiveness” to Putin’s governance after the Color Revolutions, in which he “consolidated political and economic power in his hand and marginalized his opponents” (p.177).

            Barred from running for a third consecutive term, Putin stepped aside in 2008 and his Deputy Prime Minister, Dimitri Medvedev, was elected president.  Medvedev, trained as a lawyer and a decade younger than Putin, was more polished and less paranoid.  But he was without an independent power base and thus dependent for support upon Putin, who became Prime Minister.  The Medvedev years, 2008-2012, overlapped with the last year of George W. Bush’s term and Barack Obama’s first term. Obama assumed the presidency with the idea of a “reset” in Russian-American relations. But neither administration in Conradi’s view ever fully figured out who was in control in Moscow during these years, Medvedev or Putin.

            Conradi observes a discernible shift in Putin’s style of governance when he was re-elected president in 2012.  During his first eight years, Putin had governed according to an unwritten pact: “citizens stayed out of the state’s business, and in return it guaranteed them growing prosperity, underwritten by surging oil revenues” (p.234).  After 2012, Putin sought a “new source of legitimacy,” described as “‘patriotic mobilization.’ This new direction was accompanied by tighter control of television and a tougher line against opposition parties and civil society. The move was given greater urgency by the Arab Spring, which provided a salutary reminder of the ease with which regimes could be toppled if popular protests were allowed to get out of hand” (p.234).

            The 2013-14 crises in Ukraine and Crimea marked the end of the last glimmer of hope for a workable general partnership between Russia and the West. When Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych abruptly backed out of an assistance agreement with the European Union in November 2013, massive pro-Western demonstrations erupted in Kiev’s Maidan Square. Yanukovych fled to Russia and sought Russian assistance. Putin followed in March 2014 with the boldest move of his presidency: military invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea, a largely autonomous region within Ukraine with a large Russian-speaking population and several Russian naval bases. The purported basis of the intervention was to protect beleaguered ethnic Russians.

          Conradi cautions against considering Putin’s seizure of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine as the “first staging in a carefully thought-out plan to reconstitute the Soviet Union” (p.301). His actions appear instead to have been prompted more by fear that Ukraine, a country still considered part of the Russian homeland, was “in danger of drifting into the Western camp.  He was also counting on a warm reception from the locals and gambled, rightly, that the West would do nothing to stop him” (p.303). The 2013-2014 crises “put a definitive end to any further expansion of NATO” and “allowed Putin to reassert his right of veto over any change in the ‘near abroad’” (p.295).

         If Russian governance today might be considered “Putinism,” it is based “neither on Soviet nostalgia nor on integration with the West” (p.235). Its distinctly anti-Western appeals are to an emotive Russian nationalism and ethnicity as the “backbone of the Russian state” (p.234); and to a social conservatism that is blatantly anti-homosexual, reinforced by the Russian Orthodox Church as “arbiter and enforcer of national mores” (p.234).  Oppressed during the Soviet era, the Orthodox Church saw a resurgence after the fall of communism and, as in Tsarist times, is once again “intimately woven into the affairs of state,” wielding “extraordinary power” (p.235).

            Putinism sees foreign policy as a “zero sum game” (p.339), where  plots and conspiracies against Russia abound.  Yet Russia’s role on the world stage, Conradi argues, is that of a “wrecker of the established order rather than as a positive force . . . The attempt to position Russia as a socially conservative rival to the liberal democracies of the West [has] attracted few takers in Europe beyond backers of the fringe parties on the right” (p.295).

* * *

            Conradi alludes to a common understanding of Russian history and culture divided between two camps: “Europhiles,” who look to the West for models; and “Slavophiles,” who look inward, rejecting Western values and celebrating Russian culture and history (a more elaborate discussion may be found in Steven Marks’ How Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism, reviewed here in December 2014).   The interplay between these competing camps was largely kept below the surface during the Soviet regime. When Putin came to power in the year 2000, he appeared to have a foot in each camp. But at some point in the new century’s first decade, both Putin feet moved firmly into the Slavophile camp.  Setting aside Conradi’s answer to his question who lost Russia — you will have to read the book to find that answer – Conradi’s astute analysis leads to the conclusion that Vladimir Putin “found” or “refound” the traditional Slavophile Russia, a Russia that the West in the 1990s too readily assumed had disappeared altogether.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 8, 2017

 

 

 

 

7 Comments

Filed under European History, History, Russian History

World War Warm-Up

 

Adam Hochschild, Spain in Our Hearts:

Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39 

 

            In the 1930s, at a time when authoritarian right-wing dictatorships and military rulers appeared to be on the rise across Europe — not only in Germany and Italy, but also in Portugal, Poland, Greece, Romania and Hungary — Spain embarked upon a different course. In 1931, its monarchy yielded to a Republican form of government, with a democratic constitution and an elected parliament.  Five years later, in February 1936, a coalition of liberal democrats, socialists and communists, known as the Popular Front, narrowly won a parliamentary majority and promised far-reaching reforms. Spain was then arguably Western Europe’s most backward country, with industrialization lagging behind other Western European nations, large landowners dominating the rural economy, and the Catholic Church controlling the country’s social and cultural life.

            To major segments of Spanish society – especially the military, business elites, large landowners and the Catholic Church — democracy itself was profoundly threatening and the Popular Front appeared bent on leading Spain directly to its own version of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. When a coup against the Republican government and its democratic institutions commenced on July 17, 1936, General Francisco Franco, who had been reassigned by the Popular Front to a distant military outpost on the Canary Islands, quickly assumed leadership. The Spanish Civil War, now considered a warm-up for World War II, ensued.

        In Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, Adam Hochschild explores what he terms the “fiercest conflict in Europe since World War I, marked by a vindictive savagery not seen even then” (p.xiv). He recounts the conflict in large measure from the perspective of the approximately 2,800 Americans who volunteered to fight in Spain, 750 of whom died, a “far higher death rate than the US military suffered in any of its twentieth-century wars” (p.xiv).  The Spanish Civil War was the “only time so many Americans joined someone else’s civil war – and they did so even though their own government made strenuous efforts to stop them” (p.xx).

          Two of Europe’s most ruthless dictators, Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini, supported Franco and the three year assault on Spain’s democratic institutions.  But the Republican side received substantial support from the Soviet Union and its no less ruthless dictator Joseph Stalin.  With Great Britain, France and the United States officially neutral throughout most of the conflict, the Soviet Union was the only major power willing to sell arms and ammunition to the Republican side.

          To the Americans arriving in Spain, the Soviet Union appeared to represent modernization and international solidarity across national lines, a beacon of hope not only because it was the only major nation taking a stand against fascism, which they saw as the “most dangerous development on the planet” (p.22); but also because the Soviet Union seemed better equipped to resist the economic crisis that was extending its grip across the globe in the 1930s. But the Americans discovered that the Soviet Union was more interested in doctrinal purity and purging its ranks of communist heretics, especially those loyal to Stalin’s archrival Leon Trotsky, than in advancing the democratic principles that the Republic stood for.  In addition to communists and socialists of all stripes, the Republican side drew support from urban liberals and secularists, trade unionists, rural farm workers, anarchists and a motley collection of fringe groups.

            Hochschild tells this intricate story through individual lives and personal portraits.  Assiduous readers of this blog will recall To End All Wars, reviewed here in October 2014, in which Hochschild detailed Great Britain’s participation in World War I through personal stories of leading opponents of the war and political and military leaders prosecuting the war. Here, too, he weaves the stories of individual American and international volunteers into a broader narrative of the three-year civil war. The personal portraits in Hochschild’s account of Britain during World War I were nearly equally balanced between war supporters and opponents. Here, the personalities are mostly on the Republican side, although we also meet a few individuals who assisted the Nationalists.

                 The dominant American in Hochschild’s narrative is Bob Merriman, a lanky economist from Nevada who seemed to be heading toward a successful academic career in Berkeley, California, when he decided to leave Berkeley for a two-year tour in the Soviet Union and, from there, traveled to Spain to fight on the Republican side.  Once in Spain, Merriman rose quickly to become the charismatic chief of staff of what came to be known informally as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the unit to which most of the approximately 2,800 American volunteers belonged. We experience the main battles of the war primarily through Merriman, up until April 1938, when he disappeared in battle. Hochschild also introduces a host of other Americans who traveled to Spain to support the Republican cause. Numerous journalists and literary figures add vitality and specificity to Hochschild’s overall picture of the war. Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell are central characters in the story. Antoine St. Exuprey, André Malraux and John Dos Passos make short appearances.   Hochschild’s title “Spain in Our Hearts” is from the pen of Albert Camus.

* * *

              Franco’s military rebels called themselves Nacionales, which in Spanish is stronger than “nationalist” in English, suggesting that the rebels represented “the only true Spaniards” (p.27). Hochschild characterizes the Nationalist cause as a “war of earlier centuries against modernity, of traditional Catholicism against the secular world, of an ancient rural order against urban, industrial culture” (p.69). Franco’s aim was to “restore the glories of age-old Spain and the key pillars of a highly authoritarian state: the army, the Church, the big estates, and the overseas Spanish empire that had once spanned continents . . . There would be no elections, no independent trade unions, no democratic trappings of any sort” (p.69).

            The Nationalist military forces counted among their ranks the notoriously brutal Spanish Foreign Legion, along with large numbers of North African Arab or Berber recruits, which together “formed the core of the Nationalist army” (p.98).  Termed “Moors,” the Arab and Berber recruits were led by Spanish officers who told them that they would be “fighting against infidels and Jews who wanted to abolish Allah.” The recruits thus fought alongside Spanish militiamen whose war cry was “Long Live Christ the King” (p.29). Spain’s Catholic hierarchy, the “most reactionary in Europe,” embraced Franco and the Nationalist cause “wholeheartedly, and were rewarded in turn” (p.69). In regions that came under Nationalist control, Republican reforms, including a law permitting divorce, were reversed. “Textbooks were purged of anything deemed contrary to Christian morality, and all teachers were ordered to lead their children daily in praying to the Virgin Mary for a Nationalist victory” (p.69).

            On the diverse but faction-riddled Republican side, Hochschild highlights the role which Spanish anarchists played.  Adherents of a creed that thrived in Spain, anarchists believed in “commnismo libertario, libertarian or stateless communism. The police, courts, money, taxes, political parties, the Catholic Church, and private property would all be done away with. Communities and workplaces would be run directly by the people in them, free at last to exercise a natural human instinct for mutual aid that, anarchists fervently believed, exists in us all . . . Anarchism was really a preindustrial ideology, and exactly how its vision was to be realized in a complex modern economy remained hazy at best” (p.42).

            Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War seemed to some the concrete realization of the anarchist vision. It is hard to find an example, before or since, Hochschild argues, “where so many ideas normally considered utopian were put into practice on a scale affecting millions of people” (p.214). Workers’ collectives ruled the city. Large mansions were seized and turned into homeless shelters, a liqueur distillery became a hospital, and a monastery became a children’s TB sanitarium.  Pawn shops were forced to give objects back to poorer citizens. Throughout the city, anarchist flags “hung from balconies or ropes strung across streets. They also fluttered from small poles fastened to automobiles and were painted on every imaginable surface. . . from subway cars to shoeshine boxes” (p.51). Barcelona thus “turned the normal social order on its head,” (p.61), drawing independent-minded leftists from all over the world.

            Some 35,000 to 40,000 volunteers from more than 50 different countries, divided into five international brigades, provided support to the Republican army, itself an “ill-trained hodgepodge of militia units loyal to different political parties and trade unions” (p.148). The 2,800 American volunteers who made up the Abraham Lincoln Brigade came from 46 different states, and included “rich and poor, Ivy League graduates, and men who had ridden freight trains in search of work” (p.xx). About half were Jewish and about one-third came from the New York City area. There were 90 African-American volunteers. The Abraham Lincoln brigade also included a Native American member of the Sioux tribe; two FBI fingerprint experts; a vaudeville acrobat; a rabbi; and a Jewish poet from New Orleans.

            Their de facto leader, Bob Merriman was, according to one report, the “backbone and moving spirit” of the Lincoln brigade, “filled with initiative, overflowing with energy . . . unquestionably the domina[n]t figure in the brigade” (p.247). A member of the brigade described Merriam as “universally liked and respected . . . one of those rare men who radiate strength and inspire confidence by their very appearance” (p.111). Yet, Merriman maintained what to Hochschild was a puzzling, even obstinate, loyalty to Stalin’s Soviet Union throughout the Spanish conflict. Merriman disappeared in a battle near the town of Corbera, six miles west of the Ebro River, in April 1938. There is much speculation, but still no definitive answer, as to the details of Merriman’s disappearance.

          Ernest Hemmingway, already a celebrity author, was a war correspondent during the war, and his “notorious strut and bluster” (p.xv) are on full display throughout Hochschild’s narrative. Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, often considered his greatest work, was published in 1940 and is drawn directly from his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Eric Blair, writing under the name George Orwell, actually fought and was injured in the war. His memoir Hommage to Catalonia constitutes one of the most significant contemporaneous records of the conflict. Both Hemmingway and Orwell passionately supported the Republican cause, but they portrayed the cause differently, Hochschild notes. Orwell’s Hommage described a “faction-ridden Republic . . . a picture far different from what its government wanted to present to the world” (p.362). Hemmingway, by contrast, said nothing in his wartime dispatches that might have tarnished the heroic Republican image, saving his most acidic and searing insights for novels and short stories published after the war.

           Many other journalists figure prominently in Hochschild’s account. Famed New York Times correspondent Herbert Matthews became a passionate supporter of the Republican side. Matthews fought his own civil war at the Times with his colleague William Carney, who wrote from Spain as an open Franco enthusiast.  Louis Fischer, an ardent communist as a young man who contributed to the 1949 anti-communist tract The God that Failed, abandoned journalism altogether to become an advisor to the Republican side. Socialite journalist Virginia Cowles, more realist than Hemmingway or Matthews, revealed the “spirit of revenge” (p.203) and summary executions that permeated the Nationalist side, and was among the first to depict the Republican cause as doomed.  Journalist and writer Martha Gellhorn, who later became Hemmingway wife number three (of four), accompanied Hemmingway throughout much of the war.

          Among the small number of internationals who aided the Nationalists, the most colorful is Torkild Rieber of Texaco Oil, a “swashbuckling American oilman with a penchant for right-wing dictators” (p.xvi).  Texaco was close to being the official supplier of oil to the Nationalist cause — on credit, often with free shipping, and probably in violation of United States law. A “grateful Franco continued to buy Texaco oil long after the war, and later made Rieber a Knight of the Grand Cross of Isabella, the Catholic, one of Spain’s highest honors . . . A few years later the undersecretary of the Spanish foreign ministry went further. ‘Without American petroleum and American trucks and American credits . . . we could never have won the civil war’” (p.343).

         Hochschild unsparingly recounts the atrocities committed on both sides of the conflict, while giving the Nationalists a decisive edge for brutality. The Nationalist carpet bombing of the Basque town Guernica, which inspired the war’s best known work of art by Pablo Picasso, “represented the first near-total destruction of a European city from the air,” with a “powerful impact on a world that had not yet seen the London blitz or the obliteration of Dresden and Hiroshima” (p.177).   One of the reasons that the bombing of Guernica inspired such worldwide outrage was that Franco and the Catholic Church first vigorously denied that it had ever taken place, then claimed that Guernica had been burned to the ground by retreating Republican troops.

            The Nationalist ferocity “knew no bounds” toward female supporters of the Republic. Rapes were standard and, “playing on centuries of racial feeling that was shared across the political spectrum, Nationalist officers deliberately compounded the terror by choosing Moorish troops to do the raping” (p.39). The treatment of prisoners of war on both sides was ruthless. But the Republicans generally spared Nationalist enlisted men, “considered either deluded by propaganda or forced to fight against their will” (p.241), whereas the Nationalists routinely shot captured soldiers at all levels, targeting internationals in particular: 173 of the 287 Americans taken prisoner were killed.

            More than 49,000 civilians were killed in Republican territory during the war, most during the first four months. By contrast, some 150,000 civilians were murdered in Nationalist-controlled Spain, with at least 20,000 more executions after the war. By the end of 1936, the Republican government had largely succeeded in bringing civilian deaths to a halt. But such deaths included many clergy members and attracted the attention of the conservative American press, doing great damage to the Republican chances of gaining assistance from abroad. When a British special envoy encouraged both sides in Spain to suspend summary executions, the Republic readily agreed. Nationalist Spain, “where the number of political prisoners facing the death sentence ran into the thousands, refused to do likewise” (p.339).

            The story of the Spanish Civil War must be told against the backdrop of a Europe in 1936-39 lurching toward continent-wide war. After the September 1938 Munich conference, where Britain and France ceded the German-speaking portion of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany, Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco “knew that the path to victory was clear. Previously, Hitler had been in no great hurry for the Spanish war to end, since it distracted Western attention from his ambitions in the east. But with Munich behind him, he sent the Nationalists a massive new wave of arms and supplies” (p.338). For his part, Stalin after Munich “began to lose interest in the war. . . [and] gradually withdrew most of the Russian and Eastern European officers he had lent to the Republic’s military and, for good measure, he continued to order many of them executed” (p.331).

            A few weeks after Munich, the Republican government announced that its was removing all international support, in the forlorn hope that Great Britain and France might insist that Franco do the same with the German and Italian soldiers fighting on the Nationalist side. The departure of the International Brigades, Hochschild writes, “marked the end of an almost unparalleled moment. Never before had so many men, from so many countries, against the will of their own governments, come to a place foreign to all of them to fight for what they believed in” (p.337).

            Britain and France formally recognized Nationalist Spain on February 27, 1939, while combat continued.  By March 31, 1939, the Nationalists occupied all of Spain, and the fighting was over. The outcome, Orwell wrote, was “settled in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin” (p.362) – and he could have added Washington to the list, Hochschild notes. In Orwell’s succinct phrasing, the Nationalists won “because they were stronger; they had modern arms and the others hadn’t” (p.362). Hochschild speculates, as many have before him, that greater assistance from the Western powers might have tipped the balance in the Republicans’ favor.

            Franco’s victory brought not reconciliation but vengeance. If, during the war, Nationalist supporters in a particular town or village had been killed or had their property confiscated, “people from that town were executed in retaliation, whether or not they had had anything to do with the original events. If the regime couldn’t lay its hands on someone, his family paid the price. . . At every level of society, Franco aimed to rid Spain of what he considered alien influences” (p.344).  Franco remained in power 36 years after the cessation of hostilities, up until his death in 1975.

* * *

          Hochschild acknowledges that the Second World War has largely eclipsed the Spanish Civil War in our collective memory today.  But by presenting the three-year assault on democratic institutions in Spain through the lens of participating American and international volunteers, Hochschild captures the flavor of a conflict that, as he aptly puts it, was seen at the time as a “world war in embryo” (p.xv).

Thomas H. Peebles

Prospect, Kentucky

August 18, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under European History, Spanish History

Using Space to Achieve Control

Mitchell Duneier, Ghetto:

The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea 

            In 1516, Venice’s ruling authorities, concerned about an influx into the city of Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492, created an official Jewish quarter. They termed the quarter “ghetto” because it was situated on a Venetian island that was known for its copper foundry, geto in Venetian dialect. In 1555, Pope Paul IV forced Rome’s Jews into a similarly enclosed section of the city also referred to as the “ghetto.” Gradually, the term began to be applied to distinctly Jewish residential areas across Europe. After World War II in the United States, the term took on a life of its own, applied to African-American communities in cities in the urban North. In Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea, Mitchell Duneier, professor of sociology at Princeton University, examines the origins and usages of the word “ghetto.”

            The major portion of Duneir’s book explores how the word influenced selected post World War II thinkers in their analyses of discrimination against African-Americans in urban America. While there were a few instances pre-dating World War II of the use of the term ghetto to describe African-American neighborhoods in the United States, it was Nazi treatment of Jews in Europe that gave impetus to this use of the term. By the 1960s, the use of the word ghetto to refer African-American neighborhoods had become commonplace. Today, Duneier writes, the idea of the black ghetto in the United States is “synonymous in the social sciences and public policy discussions with such phrases as ‘segregated housing patterns’ and ‘residential racial segregation’” (p.220).

          Duneier wants us to understand the urban ghetto in the United States as a “space for the intrusive social control of poor blacks” (p.xii).  It is not the result of a natural sorting or Darwinian selection; it is not an illustration of the adage that “birds of a feather flock together.” He discourages any attempt to apply the term to, for example, poor whites, Hispanics or Chinese. The notion of a ghetto, he argues, becomes a “less meaningful concept if it is watered down to simply designate a black neighborhood that varies in degree (but not in kind) from white and ethnic neighborhoods of the city.  .  . Extending the definition to other minority groups . . . carries the cost of obscuring the specific mechanisms by which the white majority has historically used space to achieve power over blacks” (p.224). Duneier shows how, in the decades since World War II, theorists have emphasized different types of external controls over African-American communities: restrictive racial covenants in real estate contracts in the 1940s, precluding the sale of properties to African-Americans; the rise of educational and social welfare bureaucracies in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s; and, more recently, police and prison control of African-American males resulting from the war on drugs.  But Duneier’s  story, tracing the idea of a ghetto, starts in Europe.

* * *

            In medieval times, Jews in French, English and German speaking lands lived in “semi-voluntary Jewish quarters for reasons of safety as well as communal activity and self-help” (p.4). But Jewish quarters were “almost never obligatory or enclosed until the fifteenth century” (p.5). Jews were always free to come and go and were, in varying degrees, part of the community-at-large. This changed with the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, with many migrating to Italy.  Following the designation of the ghetto in Venice in 1516, Pope Paul IV gave impetus to the rise of separate and unequal Jewish quarters when he issued an infamous Papal Bull in 1555, “Cum nimis absurdum.” In that instrument, the Pope mandated that all Rome’s Jews should live “solely in one and the same place, or if that is not possible, in two or three [places] or as many as are necessary, which are to be contiguous and separated completely from the dwellings of Christians” (p,8).  After centuries of identifying themselves as Romans and enjoying relative freedom of movement, Duneier writes, suddenly Rome’s Jews were forcibly relocated to a small strip of land near the Tiber, “packed into a few dark and narrow streets that were regularly inundated by the flooding river” (p.8).

          This pattern prevailed across Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, with Jews living in predominantly Jewish quarters in most major cities, some semi-voluntary, others mandatory.  “Isolation in space” (p.7) became part of what it meant to be Jewish.  Napoleon’s war of conquest in Italy in 1797 led to the liberation of Jewish ghettos in Venice, Rome and across the Italian peninsula.  In the 19th century, ghettos began to disappear across Europe. Yet, Rome remained stubbornly resistant. When Napoleon retreated from Italy in 1814, Pope Pius VI almost immediately reinstated the Roman ghetto, sending the Jews back into the “same dank and overcrowded quarter that they had occupied for centuries” (p.12). A product of papal authority, the Roman ghetto was formally and officially abolished with Italian unification in 1870. Thus, Rome’s Jews, among the first in Europe to be confined to a ghetto, “became the last Jews in Western Europe to win the rights of citizenship in their own country” (p.12).

          Duneier perceives a benign aspect to confinement of Jews in traditional ghettos.  The ghetto was a “comfort zone” for often-thriving Jewish communities, a designated area where Jews were required to live but could exercise their faith freely, in a section of the city where they would not face opprobrium from fellow citizens. Jewish communities possessed “internal autonomy and maintained a wide range of religious, educational, and social institutions” (p.11). In Venice and throughout Europe, the ghetto represented a “compromise that legitimized but carefully controlled [Jewish] presence in the city” (p.7). The traditional European ghetto was thus “always a mixed bag. Separation, while creating disadvantages for the Jews, also created conditions in which their institutional life could continue and even blossom” (p.10).

      In the early 20th century, the word ghetto came to refer to high-density neighborhoods inhabited predominantly but voluntarily by Jews. In the United States, the word frequently denoted neighborhoods inhabited not by African-Americans but by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Then, when the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they gave ominous new meanings to the word ghetto. Privately, Hitler used the word to compare areas of enforced Jewish habitation to zoos, enclosed areas where, as he put it, Jews could “behave as becomes their nature, while the German people look on as one looks at wild animals” (p.14). Publicly, and more politely, Hitler argued that confined Jewish quarters under the Nazis simply replicated the Catholic Church’s treatment of Jews in 19th century Rome.

          But ghettos controlled by the Nazis were more frequently like prisons, surrounded by barbed-wire walls. The Nazi ghetto was a place established with the “express purpose of destroying its inhabitants through violence and brutality” (p.22), a place where the state exercised the “firmest control over its subjects’ lives” (p.220). The Nazis’ virulent anti-Semitism, Duneier concludes, “transformed the ghetto into a means to accomplish economic enslavement, impoverishment, violence, fear, isolation, and overcrowding in the name of racial purity — all with no escape through conversion, and with unprecedented efficiency” (p.22).

* * *

       The fight in World War II against Hitler and Nazi tyranny, in which African-Americans participated in large numbers, understandably had the effect of highlighting the pervasive discrimination that African-Americans faced in the United States. The modern Civil Rights movement came into being in the years following World War II, focused primarily on the Southern United States and its distinctive system of rigid racial separation know as “Jim Crow.” A less visible battle took place in Northern cities, where attention focused on discrimination in employment, education and housing. A small group of sociologists, centered at the University of Chicago, emphasized how African-Americans in nearly all cities in the urban North were confined to distinct neighborhoods characterized by sub-standard housing, neighborhoods that came to be referred to as ghettos.

       Framing the debate in post-war America was the work of Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish economist who wrote what is now considered the classic analysis of discrimination in the United States, “An American Dilemma.”  Myrdal’s work, based on research conducted during World War II and published in 1944, took on a high level of importance in post-war America.  Myrdal’s research focused principally on the Jim Crow South, where three-fourths of America’s black population then lived.  But Myrdal also advanced what may seem in retrospect like a naïve if idealistic view of Northern racial segregation: it was due primarily to the practice of inserting restrictive covenants into real estate sales contracts, forbidding the selling of property to minorities (along with African-Americans, Jews and Chinese were other groups often excluded by such covenants). Restrictive covenants directed against African-Americans had a component of racial purity that was uncomfortably similar to Nazi practices, most frequently excluding persons with a single great-grandparent of black ancestry. Such clauses, Myrdal argued, were contrary to the basic American creed of equality.  Once white citizens were made aware of the contradiction, they would cease the practice of inserting such restrictions into real estate contracts, and housing patterns would desegregate.

        Myrdal himself rarely used the term ghetto and his treatment of the urban North was “perfunctory by any standard” (p.58). His main contribution was to view Northern segregation not as a natural occurrence, but as a “phenomenon of the majority’s power over a minority population” (p.63). Myrdal’s notion of majority white control over African-American communities influenced the views of two younger African-American sociologists from the University of Chicago, Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake. In 1945, Cayton and Drake published Black Metropolis, a work that focused on discrimination in Chicago and the urban North but failed to gain the attention that Myrdal’s work had received. Duneier indicates that Myrdal’s analysis of the urban North suffered because he was unable to work out an arrangement with Cayton to use the younger scholar’s copious notes of interviews and firsthand observations of conditions in Chicago’s African-American communities.  

         Cayton and Drake sought to “systematically explain the situation of blacks who had recently moved from the rural South to the urban North” (p.233). They were among the first to use the word ghetto frequently as a description of African-American communities in the North.  The word was for them a “metaphor for both segregation and Caucasian purity in the Nazi era” (p.71-72): blacks who sought to leave, they wrote, encountered the “invisible barbed wire fence of restrictive covenants” (p.72; Duneier’s emphasis). Cayton and Drake considered black confinement to black neighborhoods as permanent and officially sanctioned, unlike Hispanic or Chinese neighborhoods, giving African-American neighborhoods their ghetto-like quality.  For Cayton and Drake, therefore, ghetto was a term used to highlight the differences between African-American communities and other poor neighborhoods throughout the city.

         Echoing the interpretations of traditional European Jewish ghettos discussed above, Cayton and Drake emphasized the “more pleasant aspects of black life that were symbolic of an authentic black identity” (p.69). They argued that racial separation had created a refuge for blacks in a racist world and that blacks had no particular interest in mingling with white people, “having accommodated themselves over time to a dense and separate institutional life – ‘an intricate web of families, cliques, churches, and voluntary associations, ordered by a system of social classes’ – in their own black communities. This life so absorbed them as to make participation in interracial activities feel superfluous” (p.69). Today, Black Metropolis remains a “major inspiration for efforts to understand racial inequality, due to its focus on Northern racism, physical space, and the consequences of racial segregation” (p.79).

            Another protégé of Myrdal, renowned Columbia University sociologist Kenneth Clark, emphasized in the 1950s and 1960s the extent to which external controls of black neighborhoods – absentee landlords and business owners, and school, welfare and public housing bureaucracies – produced a “powerless colony” (p.91). Clark’s 1965 work, Dark Ghetto, which Duneier considers the most important work on the African-American condition in the urban North since Cayton and Drake’s Black Metropolis two decades earlier, argued that the black ghetto was a product of the larger society’s successful “institutionalization of powerlessness” (p.114). Clark looked at segregated residential patterns as just one of several interlocking factors that together produced in ghetto residents a sense of helplessness and suspicion. Others included discrimination in the work place and unequal educational opportunities. Clark thus saw urban ghettos as reenforcing  “vicious cycles occurring within a powerless social, economic, political, and educational landscape” (p.137). Together, theses cycles led to what Clark termed a “tangle of pathologies.”

       For Clark, the traditional Jewish European ghetto bore little resemblance to American realities. Rigid housing segregation was “more meaningfully a North American invention, a manner of existence that had little in common with anything that had come before in Europe or even in the U.S. South” (p.114).  More than any other thinker in Duneier’s study, Clark provided the term ghetto with a distinctly American meaning.  In the 1980s and 1990s, African-American sociologist William Julius Wilson rethought much of the received wisdom that had come from or through Myrdal and Clark.

            Wilson took into account the out-migration of African Americans from inner cities that had begun to gather momentum in the 1970s.  In understanding the plight of those left behind, Wilson argued that class had become a more significant factor than race. African-Americans were dividing into two major classes: a middle class, a “black bourgeoisie,” more and more often living outside the urban core – outside the ghetto – in outlying areas of the city, or in the suburbs, not uncommonly in mixed black-white neighborhoods. The black ghetto remained, concentrating and isolating the least skilled, least educated and least fortunate African-Americans, a “black underclass.”  In contrast to the African-American communities Cayton and Drake had described in the 1940s, those left behind in the 1970s and 1980s saw far fewer black role models they could emulate. A new form of American ghetto had emerged by 1980, Wilson argued, “characterized by geographic, social, and economic isolation. Unlike in previous eras, middle-class and lower-class blacks were having very different life experiences in the 1980s” (p.234).

        Wilson further posited that any neighborhood with 40 percent poverty should be termed a ghetto, thereby blurring the distinction between poor black and poor white or Hispanic neighborhoods.  Assistance program that target poor communities generally, Wilson theorized, were more likely to be approved and implemented than programs targeting only African-American communities.  For the first time since the term ghetto had become part of the analysis of Northern housing patterns in the early post-World War II era, the term was now used without reference to either race or power. With Wilson’s analysis, Duneier contends, the history of the idea of a ghetto in Europe and America “no longer seemed relevant” (p.184).

         Duneier devotes a full chapter to Geoffrey Canada, a charismatic community activist rather than a theorist and scholar. In the 1990s and early 21st century, Canada came to see early education as the key to improving the quality of life in African American neighborhoods – in black ghettos – thereby increasing the range of work and living opportunities for African American youth.  Canada was one of the first to characterize the federal crackdown on drug crime as a tragic mistake, producing alarming rates of black incarceration.  As a result, the country was spending “far more money on prisons than on education” (p.198).

        Two white theorists,  Patrick Moynihan and Oscar Lewis, also figure in Duneier’s analysis. Moynihan, an advisor to presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, and later Senator from New York, described the black ghetto in terms of broken families. The relatively large number of illegitimate births and a matriarchal family structure in African-American communities, Moynihan argued, held back both black men and women.  Lewis, an anthropologist from the University of Illinois, advanced the notion of a “culture of poverty,” contending that poverty produces a distinct and debilitating mindset that was remarkably similar throughout the world, in advanced and developing countries, in urban and rural areas alike.

         In a final chapter, Duneier summarizes where his key thinkers have led us in our current conception of the term ghetto in the United States. “By the 1960s, an uplifting portrait of the black ghetto became harder to draw. Ever since, those left behind in the black ghetto have had a qualitatively different existence” (p.219). The word now signifies “restriction and impoverishment in a delimited residential space. This emphasis highlights the important point that today’s residential patterns did not come about ‘naturally’; they were promoted by both private and state actions that were often discriminatory and even coercive” (p.220).

* * *

         Duneier has synthesized some of the most important sociological thinking of the post World War II era on discrimination against African Americans, producing a fascinating, useful and timely work.  But Duneier does not spoon feed. The basis for his hypothesis that the links between the traditional Jewish European ghetto and the black American ghetto have gradually faded is not readily gleaned from the text. Similarly, how theorists used the term ghetto in their analyzes of racial discrimination against African Americans seems at times a minor subtheme, overwhelmed by his treatment of the analyzes themselves.  Duneier’s important work thus requires – and merits — a careful reading.

          Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D. C.

July 27, 2017

 

 

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Filed under American Society, European History, United States History

Trial By History

 

 

 

Lawrence Douglas, The Right Wrong Man:

John Demjanjuk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial 

          Among the cases seeking to bring to justice Nazi war criminals and those who abetted their criminality, that of Ivan Demjanjuk was far and away the most protracted, and perhaps the most confounding as well.  From 1976, up to his death in 2012, a few months short of his 92nd birthday, Demjanjuk was the subject of investigations and legal proceedings, including two lengthy trials, involving his wartime activities after becoming a Nazi prisoner of war. Born in the Ukraine in 1920, Demjanjuk was conscripted into the Red Army in 1941, injured in battle, and taken prisoner by the Nazis in 1942. After the war, he immigrated to the United States, where he settled in Cleveland and worked in a Ford automobile plant, changing his name to John and becoming a US citizen in 1958.

        Demjanjuk’s unexceptional and unobjectionable American immigrant life was disrupted in 1976 when several survivors of the infamous Treblinka prison camp in Eastern Poland identified him as Ivan the Terrible, a notoriously brutal Ukrainian prison guard at Treblinka. In a trial in Jerusalem that began in 1987, an Israeli court found that Demjanjuk was in fact Treblinka’s Ivan and sentenced him to death. But the trial, which began as the most significant Israeli prosecution of a Nazi war criminal since that of Adolph Eichmann in 1961, finished as one of modern history’s most notorious cases of misidentification. In 1993, the Israeli Supreme Court found, based on newly discovered evidence, that Demjanjuk had not been at Treblinka. Rather, the new evidence established that Demjanjuk had served at four other Nazi camps, including 5½ months in 1943 as a prison guard at Sobibor, a camp in Poland, at a time when nearly 30,000 Jews were killed.  In 2009, Demjanjuk went on trial in Munich for crimes committed at Sobibor. The Munich trial court found Demjanjuk guilty in 2011. With an appeal of the trial court’s verdict pending, Demjanjuk died ten months later, in 2012.

        The driving force behind both trials was the Office of Special Investigations (“OSI”), a unit within the Criminal Division of the United States Department of Justice. OSI initiated denaturalization and deportation proceedings (“D & D”) against naturalized Americans suspected of Nazi atrocities, usually on the basis of having provided misleading or incomplete information for entry into the United States (denaturalization and deportation are separate procedures in the United States, before different tribunals and with different legal standards; because no legislation criminalized Nazi atrocities committed during World War II, the ex post facto clause of the U.S. Constitution was considered a bar to post-war prosecutions of such acts in the United States). OSI had just come into existence when it initiated the D & D proceedings against Demjanjuk in 1981 that led to his trial in Israel, and its institutional inexperience contributed to the Israeli court’s misidentification of Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible. Twenty years later, in 2001, OSI initiated a second round of D & D proceedings against Demjanjuk for crimes committed at Sobibor.  By this time, OSI had added a handful of professional historians to its staff of lawyers (during my career at the US Department of Justice, I had the opportunity to work with several OSI lawyers and historians).

             In his thought-provoking work, The Right Wrong Man: John Demjanjuk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial, Lawrence Douglas, a professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought at Amherst College, aims to sort out and make sense of Demjanjuk’s 35-year legal odyssey, United States-Israel-United States-Germany.  Douglas argues that the expertise of OSI historians was the key to the successful 2011 verdict in Munich, and that the Munich proceedings marked a critical transformation within the German legal system. Although 21st century Germany was otherwise a model of responsible atonement for the still unfathomable crimes committed in the Nazi era, its hidebound legal system had up to that point amassed what Douglas terms a “pitifully thin record” (p.11) in bringing Nazi perpetrators to the bar of justice.  But through a “trial by history,” in which the evidence came from “dusty archives rather than the lived memory of survivors” (p.194), the Munich proceedings demonstrated that German courts could self-correct and learn from past missteps.

         The trial in Munich comprises roughly the second half of Douglas’ book. Douglas traveled to Munich to observe the proceedings, and he provides interesting and valuable sketches of the judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys, along with detail about how German criminal law and procedure adapted to meet the challenges in Demjanjuk’s case.  The man on trial in Munich was a minor cog in the wheel of the Nazi war machine, in many ways the polar opposite of Eichmann. No evidence presented in Munich tied Demjanjuk to specific killings during his service at Sobibor. No evidence demonstrated that Demjanjuk, unlike Ivan the Terrible at Treblinka, had engaged in cruel acts during his Sobibor service. There was not even any evidence that Demjanjuk was a Nazi sympathizer. Yet, based on historical evidence, the Munich court concluded that Demjanjuk had served as an accessory to murder at Sobibor.  The camp’s only purpose was extermination of its population, and its guards contributed to that that purpose. As Douglas emphatically asserts, all Sobibor guards necessarily served as accessories to murder because “that was their job” (p.220).

* * *

            Created in 1979, OSI “represented a critical step toward mastering the legal problems posed by the Nazi next door” (p.10; a reference to Eric Lichtblau’s incisive The Nazi Next Door, reviewed here in October 2015).   But OSI commenced proceedings to denaturalize Demjanjuk before it was sufficiently equipped to handle the task.  In 1993, after Demjanjuk’s acquittal in Jerusalem as Ivan the Terrible, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit severely reproached OSI for its handling of the proceedings that led to Demjanjuk’s extradition to Israel.  The court found that OSI had withheld exculpatory identification evidence, with one judge suggesting that in seeking to extradite Demjanjuk OSI had succumbed to pressure from Jewish advocacy groups .

            The Sixth Circuit’s ruling was several years in the future when Demjanjuk’s trial began in Jerusalem in February 1987, more than a quarter of a century after completion of the Eichmann trial (the Jerusalem proceeding against Eichmann was the subject of Deborah Lipstatadt’s engrossing analysis, The Eichmann Trial, reviewed here in October 2013). The Holocaust survivors who testified at the Eichmann trial had had little or no direct dealing with the defendant. Their purpose was didactic: providing a comprehensive narrative history of the Holocaust from the survivors’ perspective.   The Treblinka survivors who testified at Demjanjuk’s trial a quarter century later older had a more conventional purpose: identification of a perpetrator of criminal acts.

            Five witnesses, including four Treblinka survivors and a guard at the camp, identified Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible.   Eliahu Rosenberg, who had previously testified at the Eichmann trial, provided a moment of high drama when he approached Demjanjuk, asked him to remove his glasses, looked him in the eyes and declared in Yiddish, the language of the lost communities in Poland, “This is Ivan. I say unhesitatingly and without the slightest doubt. This is Ivan from the [Treblinka] gas chambers. . . I saw his eyes. I saw those murderous eyes” (p.51). The Israeli court also allowed the Treblinka survivors to describe their encounters with Ivan the Terrible as part of a “larger narrative of surviving Treblinka and the Holocaust” (p.81). The court seemed influenced by the legacy of the Eichmann trial; it acted, Douglas emphasizes, “as if the freedom to tell their story was owed to the survivors” (p.81-82).

            The case against Demjanjuk also rested upon an identification card issued at Trawniki, an SS facility in Poland which prepared specially recruited Soviet POWs to work as accessories, where they provided the SS with “crucial assistance in the extermination of Poland’s Jews, including serving as death camp guards” (p.52). The card contained a photo that unmistakably was of the youthful Demjanjuk (this photo adorns the book’s cover), and accurately reported his date of birth, birthplace, father’s name and identifying features. Trawniki ID 1393 listed Demjanjuk’s service at Sobibor, but not Treblinka. That, Israeli prosecutors explained, was because Sobibor had been his initial assignment at the time of issuance of card.

          Demjanjuk’s defense was that that he had not served at Treblinka, but his testimony was so riddled with holes and contradictions that the three experienced judges of the court – the fact finders in the proceeding; there was no jury – accepted in full the survivors’ testimony and sentenced Demjanjuk to death in 1988.  The death sentence triggered an automatic appeal to the five-judge Israeli Supreme Court (Eichmann was the only other defendant ever sentenced to death by an Israeli court). The appellate hearing did not take place until 1990, and benefitted from a trove of documents released by the Soviet Union during its period of glasnost (openness) prior to its collapse in 1991.

      The Soviet documents contained a “rather complete” (p.94) picture of Demjanjuk’s wartime service, confirming his work as a camp guard at Sobibor and showing that he had also served at three other camps, Okzawm, Majdanek and Flossenberg, but with no mention of service at Treblinka.  Moreover, the Soviet documentation pointed inescapably to another man, Ivan Marchenko, as Treblinka’s Ivan the Terrible. In 1993, six years after the Jerusalem trial had begun, the Israeli Supreme Court issued a 400-page opinion in which it vacated the conviction. Although the court could have remanded the case for consideration of Demjanjuk’s service at other camps, it pointedly refused to do so. Restarting proceedings “does not seem to us reasonable” (p.110), the court concluded.  OSI, however, took a different view.

* * *

            Although Demjanjuk’s US citizenship was restored in 1998, OSI determined that neither his advancing age – he was then nearly 80 – nor his partial exoneration in Jerusalem after protracted proceedings was sufficient to allow him to escape being called to account for his service at Sobibor. Notwithstanding the rebuke from the federal court of appeals for its handling of the initial D & D proceedings, OSI in 2001 instituted another round of proceedings against Demjanjuk, 20 years after the first round. Everyone at OSI, Douglas writes, “recognized the hazards in seeking to denaturalize Demjanjuk a second time. The Demjanjuk disaster continued to cast a long shadow over the unit, marring its otherwise impressive record of success” (p.126). By this time, however, OSI had assembled a team of professional historians who had “redefined our historical understanding of the SS’s process of recruiting and training the auxiliaries who crucially assisted in genocide” (p.126). The work of the OSI historians proved pivotal in the second round of D & D proceedings, which terminated in 2008 with a ruling that Demjanjuk be removed from the United States; and pivotal in persuading a reluctant Germany to request that Demjanjuk be extradited to stand trial in Munich.

            The German criminal justice system at the time of Demjanjuk’s extradition was inherently cautious and rule bound — perhaps the epitome of what a normal legal system should be in normal times and very close to what the victorious Allies would have hoped for in 1945 as they set out to gradually transfer criminal justice authority to the vanquished country. But, as Douglas shows, that system prior to the Demjanjuk trial was poorly equipped to deal with the enormity of the Nazi crimes committed in the name of the German state. Numerous German legal conceptions constituted obstacles to successful prosecutions of former Nazis and their accomplices.

          After Germany regained its sovereignty after World War II and became responsible for its own criminal justice system, it “tenaciously insisted that Nazi atrocities be treated as ordinary crimes, requiring no special courts, procedures, or law to bring their perpetrators to justice” (p.20). Service in a Nazi camp, by itself, did not constitute a crime under German law.  A guard could be tried as an accessory to murder, but only if his acts could be linked to specific killings. There was also the issue of the voluntariness of one’s service in a Nazi camp. The German doctrine of “putative necessity” allowed a defendant to show that he entertained a reasonable belief that he had no choice but to engage in criminal acts.

            In the Munich trial, the prosecution’s case turned “less on specific evidence of what John Demjanjuk did than on historical evidence about what people in Demjanjuk’s position must have done” (p.218) at Sobibor which, like Treblinka, had been a pure exterminaton facility whose only function was to kill its prison population.  With Demjanjuk’s service at Sobibor established beyond dispute, but without evidence that he had “killed with his own hand” (p.218), the prosecution in Munich presented a “full narrative history of how the camp and its guards functioned . . . [through a] comprehensive historical study of Sobibor and its Trawniki-trained guards” (p.219).

          Historical research developed by OSI historians and presented to the Munich court demonstrated that Trawniki guards “categorically ceased to be POWs once they entered Trawniki” (p.226). They were paid and received regular days off, paid home leave and medical care. They were issued firearms and were provided uniforms. The historical evidence thus demonstrated that the difference between the death-camp inmates and the Trawnikis who guarded them was “stark and unequivocal” (p.226).  Far from being “glorified prisoners,” Trawniki-trained guards were “vital and valued assistants in genocide” (p.228). The historical evidence further showed that all guards at Sobibor were “generalists.” They rotated among different functions, such as guarding the camp’s perimeter and managing a “well-rehearsed process of extermination.” All “facilitated the camp’s function: the mass killings of Jews” (p.220).

         Historical evidence further demolished the “putative necessity” defense, in which the defendant entertained a reasonable belief that he would face the direst consequences if he did not participate in the camp’s activities. An “extraordinary research effort was dedicated to exploring the question of duress, and the results were astonishing: historians failed to uncover so much as a single instance in which a German officer or NCO faced ‘dire punishment’ for opting out of genocide” (p.223).  The historical evidence thus provided the foundation for the Munich court to find Demjanjuk guilty as an accessory to murder. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment but released to a Bavarian nursing home pending appeal. Ten months later, on March 17, 2012, he died. Because his appeal was never heard, his lawyer was able to argue that his conviction had no legal effect and that Demjanjuk had died an innocent man.

           The Munich court’s holding that Demjanjuk had been an accessory to murder underscored the value of years of historical research. As Douglas writes:

Without the painstaking archival work and interpretative labors of the OSI’s historians, the court could never have confidently reached its two crucial findings: that in working as a Trawniki at Sobibor, Demjanjuk had necessarily served as an accessory to murder; and that in choosing to remain in service when others chose not to, he acted voluntarily. This “trial by history” enabled the court to master the prosecutorial problem posed by the auxiliary to genocide who operates invisibly in an exterminatory apparatus (p.255-56).

          In the aftermath of Demjanjuk’s conviction, German prosecutors considered charging as many as 30 still living camp guards. One, Oskar Gröning, a former SS guard at Auschwitz, was convicted in 2015, in Lüneburg, near Hamburg.  Gröning admitted in open court that it was “beyond question that I am morally complicit. . . This moral guilt I acknowledge here, before the victims, with regret and humility” (p.258).  Gröning’s trial “would never have been possible without Demjanjuk’s conviction” (p.258), Douglas indicates. Camp guards such Demjanjuk and Gröning were convicted “not because they committed wanton murders, but because they worked in factories of death” (p.260).

* * *

        Thirty years elapsed between Demjanjuk’s initial D & D proceedings in the United States in 1981 and the trial court’s verdict in Munich in 2011. Douglas acknowledges that the decision to seek to denaturalize Demjanjuk a second time and try him in Munich after the spectacularly botched trial in Jerusalem could be seen as prosecutorial overreach.  But despite these misgivings, Douglas strongly supports the Munich verdict: “not because I believe it was vital to punish Demjanjuk, but because the German court delivered a remarkable and just decision, one which few observers would have predicted from Germany’s long legal struggle with the legacy of Nazi genocide” (p.15).   Notwithstanding all the conceptual obstacles created by a legal system that treated the Holocaust as an “ordinary crime,” German courts in Demjanjuk’s case “managed to comprehend the Holocaust as a crime of atrocity” (p.260).  Demjanjuk’s conviction therefore serves as a reminder, Douglas concludes, that the Holocaust was “not accomplished through the acts of Nazi statesmen, SS henchmen, or vicious sociopaths alone. It was [also] made possible by the thousands of lowly foot soldiers of genocide. Through John Demjanjuk, they were at last brought to account” (p.257).

Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D.C.

July 10, 2017

 

4 Comments

Filed under German History, History, Israeli History, Rule of Law, United States History

Honest Broker

 

 

Michael Doran, Ike’s Gamble:

America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East 

 

       On July 26, 1956, Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser stunned the world by announcing the nationalization of the Suez Canal, a critical conduit through Egypt for the transportation of oil between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. Constructed between 1859 and 1869, the canal was owned by the Anglo-French Suez Canal Company. What followed three months later was the Suez Crisis of 1956: on October 29, Israeli brigades invaded Egypt across its Sinai Peninsula, advancing to within ten miles of the canal.  Britain and France, following a scheme concocted with Israel to retake the canal and oust Nasser, demanded that both Israeli and Egyptian troops withdraw from the occupied territory. Then, on November 5th, British and French forces invaded Egypt and occupied most of the Canal Zone, the territory along the canal. The United States famously opposed the joint operation and, through the United Nations, forced Britain and France out of Egypt.  Nearly simultaneously, the Soviet Union ruthlessly suppressed an uprising in Hungary.

       The autumn of 1956 was thus a tumultuous time. Across the globe, it was a time when colonies were clamoring for and achieving independence from former colonizers, and the United States and the Soviet Union were competing for the allegiance of emerging states in what was coming to be known as the Third World.  In the volatile and complex Middle East, it was a time of rising nationalism. Nasser, a wildly ambitious general who came to power after a 1952 military coup had deposed the King of Egypt, aspired to become not simply the leader of his country but also of the Arab speaking world, even the entire Muslim world.  By 1956, Nasser had emerged as the region’s most visible nationalist. But he was far from the only voice in the Middle East seeking to speak for Middle East nationalism. Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq were also imbued with the rising spirit of nationalism and saw Nasser as a rival, not a fraternal comrade-in-arms.

       Michael Doran’s Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East provides background and context for the United States’ decision not to support Britain, France and Israel during the 1956 Suez crisis. As his title suggests, Doran places America’s President, war hero and father figure Dwight D. Eisenhower, known affectionately as Ike, at the middle of the complicated Middle East web (although Nasser probably merited a place in Doran’s title: “Ike’s Gamble on Nasser” would have better captured the spirit of the narrative). Behind the perpetual smile, Eisenhower was a cold-blooded realist who was “unshakably convinced” (p.214) that the best way to advance American interests in the Middle East and hold Soviet ambitions in check was for the United States to play the role of an “honest broker” in the region, sympathetic to the region’s nationalist aspirations and not too closely aligned with its traditional allies Britain and France, or with the young state of Israel.

       But Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former high level official at the National Security Council and Department of Defense in the administration of George W. Bush, goes on to argue that Eisenhower’s vision of the honest broker – and his “bet” on Nasser – were undermined by the United States’ failure to recognize the “deepest drivers of the Arab and Muslim states, namely their rivalries with each other for power and authority” (p.105). Less than two years after taking Nasser’s side in the 1956 Suez Crisis, Eisenhower seemed to reverse himself.  By mid-1958, Doran reveals, Eisenhower had come to regret his bet on Nasser and his refusal to back Britain, France and Israel during the crisis. Eisenhower kept this view largely to himself, however, distorting the historical picture of his Middle East policies.

        Although Doran considers Eisenhower “one of the most sophisticated and experienced practitioners of international politics ever to reside in the White House,” the story of his relationship with Nasser is at bottom a lesson in the “dangers of calibrating the distinction between ally and enemy incorrectly” (p.13).  Or, as he puts it elsewhere, Eisenhower’s “bet” on Nasser’s regime is a “tale of Frankenstein’s monster, with the United States as the mad scientist and the new regime as his uncontrollable creation” (p.10).

* * *

      The “honest broker” approach to the Middle East dominated the Eisenhower administration from its earliest days in 1953. Eisenhower, his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and most of their key advisors shared a common picture of the volatile region. Trying to wind down a war in Korea they had inherited from the Truman Administration, they considered the Middle East the next and most critical region of confrontation in the global Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States.  As they saw it, in the Middle East the United States found itself caught between Arabs and other “indigenous” nationalities on one side, and the British, French, and Israelis on the other. “Each side had hold of one arm of the United States, which they were pulling like a tug rope. The picture was so obvious to almost everyone in the Eisenhower administration that it was understood as an objective description of reality” (p.44). It is impossible, Doran writes, to exaggerate the “impact that the image of America as an honest broker had on Eisenhower’s thought . . . The notion that the top priority of the United States was to co-opt Arab nationalists by helping them extract concessions – within limits – from Britain and Israel was not open to debate. It was a view that shaped all other policy proposals” (p.10).

         Alongside Ike’s “bet” on Nasser, the book’s second major theme is the deterioration of the famous “special relationship” between Britain and the United States during Eisenhower’s first term, due in large measure to differences over Egypt, the Suez Canal, and Nasser (and, to quibble further with the book’s title, “Britain’s Fall from Power in the Middle East” in my view would have captured the spirit of the narrative better than “America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East”).  The Eisenhower administration viewed Britain’s once mighty empire as a relic of the past, out of place in the post World War II order. It viewed Britain’s leader, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in much the same way. Eisenhower entered his presidency convinced that it was time for Churchill, then approaching age 80, to exit the world stage and for Britain to relinquish control of its remaining colonial possessions – in Egypt, its military base and sizeable military presence along the Suez Canal.

      Anthony Eden replaced Churchill as prime minister in 1955.  A leading anti-appeasement ally of Churchill in the 1930s, by the 1950s Eden shared Eisenhower’s view that Churchill had become a “wondrous relic” who was “stubbornly clinging to outmoded ideas” (p.20) about Britain’s empire and its place in the world.  Although interested in aligning Britain’s policies with the realities of the post World War II era, Eden led the British assault on Suez in 1956.  With  “his career destroyed” (p.202), Eden was forced to resign early in 1957.

       If the United States today also has a “special relationship” with Israel, that relationship had yet to emerge during the first Eisenhower term.  Israel’s circumstances were of course entirely different from those of Britain and France, a young country surrounded by Arab-speaking states implacably hostile to its very existence. President Truman had formally recognized Israel less than a decade earlier, in 1948.  But substantial segments of America’s foreign policy establishment in the 1950s continued to believe that such recognition had been in error. Not least among them was John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State.  There seemed to be more than a whiff of anti-Semitism in Dulles’ antagonism toward Israel.

        Describing Israel as the “darling of Jewry throughout the world” (p.98), Dulles decried the “potency of international Jewry” (p.98) and warned that the United States should not be seen as a “backer of expansionist Zionism” (p.77).  For the first two years of the Eisenhower administration, Dulles followed a policy designed to “’deflate the Jews’ . . . by refusing to sell arms to Israel, rebuffing Israeli requests for security guarantees, and diminishing the level of financial assistance to the Jewish state” (p.99).   Dulles’ views were far from idiosyncratic. Israel “stirred up deep hostility among the Arabs” and many of America’s foreign policy elites in the 1950s ”saw Israel as a liability” (p.9). Without success, the United States sought Nasser’s agreement to an Arab-Israeli accord which would have required limited territorial concessions from Israel.

       Behind the scenes, however, the United States brokered a 1954 Anglo-Egyptian agreement, by which Britain would withdraw from its military base in the Canal Zone over an 18-month period, with Egypt agreeing that Britain could return to its base in the event of a major war. Doran terms this Eisenhower’s “first bet” on Nasser. Ike “wagered that the evacuation of the British from Egypt would sate Nasser’s nationalist appetite. The Egyptian leader, having learned that the United States was willing and able to act as a strategic partner, would now keep Egypt solidly within the Western security system. It would not take long before Eisenhower would come to realize that Nasser’s appetite only increased with eating” (p.67-68).

        As the United States courted Nasser as a voice of Arab nationalism and a bulwark against Soviet expansion into the region, it also encouraged other Arab voices. In what the United States imprecisely termed the “Northern Tier,” it supported security pacts between Turkey and Iraq and made overtures to Egypt’s neighbors Syria and Jordan. Nasser adamantly opposed these measures, considering them a means of constraining his own regional aspirations and preserving Western influence through the back door.  The “fatal intellectual flaw” of the United States’ honest broker strategy, Doran argues, was that it “imagined the Arabs and Muslims as a unified bloc. It paid no attention whatsoever to all of the bitter rivalries in the Middle East that had no connection to the British and Israeli millstones. Consequently, Nasser’s disputes with his rivals simply did not register in Washington as factors of strategic significance” (p.78).

           In September 1955, Nasser shocked the United States by concluding an agreement to buy arms from the Soviet Union, through Czechoslovakia, one of several indications that he was at best playing the West against the Soviet Union, at worst tilting toward the Soviet side.  Another came in May 1956, when Egypt formally recognized Communist China. In July 1956, partially in reaction to Nasser’s pro-Soviet dalliances, Dulles informed the Egyptian leader that the United States was pulling out of a project to provide funding for a dam across the Nile River at Aswan, Nasser’s “flagship development project . . . [which was] expected to bring under cultivation hundreds of thousands of acres of arid land and to generate millions of watts of electricity” (p.167).

         Days later, Nasser countered by announcing the nationalization of the Suez Canal, predicting that the tolls collected from ships passing through the canal would pay for the dam’s construction within five years. Doran characterizes Nasser’s decision to nationalize the canal as the “single greatest move of his career.” It is impossible to exaggerate, he contends, the “power of the emotions that the canal takeover stirred in ordinary Egyptians. If Europeans claimed that the company was a private concern, Egyptians saw it as an instrument of imperial exploitation – ‘a state within a state’. . . [that was] plundering a national asset for the benefit of France and Britain” (p.171).

            France, otherwise largely missing in Doran’s detailed account, concocted the scheme that led to the October 1956 crisis.  Concerned that Nasser was providing arms to anti-French rebels in Algeria, France proposed to Israel what Doran terms a “stranger than fiction” (p.189) plot by which the Israelis would invade Egypt. Then, in order to protect shipping through the canal, France and Britain would:

issue an ultimatum demanding that the belligerents withdraw to a position of ten miles on either side of the canal, or face severe consequences. The Israelis, by prior arrangement, would comply. Nasser, however, would inevitably reject the ultimatum, because it would leave Israeli forces inside Egypt while simultaneously compelling Egyptian forces to withdraw from their own sovereign territory. An Anglo-French force would then intervene to punish Egypt for noncompliance. It would take over the canal and, in the process, topple Nasser (p.189).

The crisis unfolded more or less according to this script when Israeli brigades invaded Egypt on October 29th and Britain and France launched their joint invasion on November 5th. Nasser sunk ships in the canal and blocked oil tankers headed through the canal to Europe.

         Convinced that acquiescence in the invasion would drive the entire Arab world to the Soviet side in the global Cold War, the United States issued measured warnings to Britain and France to give up their campaign and withdraw from Egyptian soil. If Nasser was by then a disappointment to the United States, Doran writes, the “smart money was still on an alliance with moderate nationalism, not with dying empires” (p.178). But when Eden telephoned the White House on November 7, 1956, largely to protest the United States’ refusal to sell oil to Britain, Ike went further. In that phone call, Eisenhower as honest broker “decided that Nasser must win the war, and that he must be seen to win” (p.249).  Eisenhower’s hardening toward his traditional allies a week into the crisis, Doran contends, constituted his “most fateful decision of the Suez Crisis: to stand against the British, French, and Israelis in [a] manner that was relentless, ruthless, and uncompromising . . . [Eisenhower] demanded, with single-minded purpose, the total and unconditional British, French, and Israeli evacuation from Egypt. These steps, not the original decision to oppose the war, were the key factors that gave Nasser the triumph of his life” (p.248-49).

        When the financial markets caught wind of the blocked oil supplies, the value of the British pound plummeted and a run on sterling reserves ensued. “With his currency in free fall, Eden became ever more vulnerable to pressure from Eisenhower. Stabilizing the markets required the cooperation of the United States, which the Americans refused to give until the British accepted a complete, immediate, and unconditional withdrawal from Egypt” (p.196). At almost the same time, Soviet tanks poured into Budapest to suppress a burgeoning Hungarian pro-democracy movement. The crisis in Eastern Europe had the effect of “intensifying Eisenhower’s and Dulles’s frustration with the British and the French. As they saw it, Soviet repression in Hungary offered the West a prime opportunity to capture the moral high ground in international politics – an opportunity that the gunboat diplomacy in Egypt was destroying” (p.197). The United States supported a United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of invading troops. Britain, France and Israel had little choice bu to accept these terms in December 1956.

       In the aftermath of the Suez Crisis, the emboldened Nasser continued his quest to become the region’s dominant leader. In February 1958, he engineered the formation of the United Arab Republic, a political union between Egypt and Syria that he envisioned as the first step toward a broader pan-Arab state (in fact, the union lasted only until 1961). He orchestrated a coup in Iraq in July 1958. Later that month, Eisenhower sent American troops into Lebanon to avert an Egyptian-led uprising against the pro-western government of Christian president Camille Chamoun. Sometime in the period between the Suez Crisis of 1956 and the intervention in Lebanon in 1958, Doran argues, Eisenhower withdrew his bet on Nasser, coming to the view that his support of Egypt during the 1956 Suez crisis had been a mistake.

        The Eisenhower of 1958 “consistently and clearly argued against embracing Nasser” (p.231).  He now viewed Nasser as a hardline opponent of any reconciliation between Arabs and Israel, squarely in the Soviet camp. Eisenhower, a “true realist with no ideological ax to grind,” came to recognize that his Suez policy of “sidelining the Israelis and the Europeans simply did not produce the promised results. The policy was . . . a blunder” (p.255).   Unfortunately, Doran argues, Eisenhower kept his views to himself until well into the 1960s and few historians picked up on his change of mind. This allowed those who sought to distance United States policy from Israel to cite Eisenhower’s stance in the 1956 Suez Crisis, without taking account of Eisenhower’s later reconsideration of that stance.

* * *

      Doran relies upon an extensive mining of diplomatic archival sources, especially those of the United States and Great Britain, to piece together this intricate depiction of the Eisenhower-Nasser relationship and the 1956 Suez Crisis. These sources allow Doran to emphasize the interactions of the key actors in the Middle East throughout the 1950s, including personal animosities and rivalries, and intra-governmental turf wars.  He writes in a straightforward, unembellished style. Helpful subheadings within each chapter make his detailed and sometimes dense narrative easier to follow. His work will appeal to anyone who has worked in an Embassy overseas, to Middle East and foreign policy wonks, and to general readers with an interest in the 1950s.

Thomas H. Peebles

Saint Augustin-de-Desmaures

Québec, Canada

June 19, 2017

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Filed under American Politics, British History, Uncategorized, United States History, World History

Ineffective Peace Treaty

MagnaCarta

Dan Jones, Magna Carta:

The Birth of Liberty 

 

            The Magna Carta, a document dating from 1215 — a mere 802 years ago – is now regarded as the foundation for some of the most enduring Anglo-American liberties, among them trial by jury; the right of habeas corpus; the principle of no taxation without representation; and the notion that the king is subject to and not above the law.  Grandiose terms such as “due process of law” and the “rule of law” are regularly traced to the Great Charter. Yet, when we look at the charter from the perspective of 1215, we see a markedly different instrument: an ineffective peace treaty designed to end civil war between a loathsome English king and rebellious barons that brought about almost no cessation of hostilities; and a compact that, within a few short weeks of its execution, was condemned by the Pope in the strongest terms, when he threatened both sides with excommunication from the Catholic Church if they sought to observe or enforce its terms.

            Dan Jones’ Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty seeks to capture the perspective and spirit of 1215. In this compact, easy-to-read volume, Jones, a British historian and journalist who has published extensively on the Middle Ages, takes his readers back to the late 12th and 13th centuries to show the origins and immediate after effects of the Great Charter. To this story, fascinating in itself, Jones adds much rich detail about life in England and on the European continent during the Middle Ages — for kings and barons, to be sure, but also for everyday folks, those without titles of nobility. In Jones’ interpretation, the Magna Carta was the product of a struggle for control of the 13th century English feudal order between three institutions: the crown, the nobility, and the Catholic Church.

           The key characters in Jones’ story are King John I — “bad King John,” as I remember him described in school; approximately 200 barons, England’s’ most powerful nobles who, upon condition of pledging loyalty to the king, ruled over wide stretches of the realm like miniature kings; and Pope Innocent III, in Jones’ view one of the greatest medieval popes, a “reformer, a crusader, and a strict clerical authoritarian” (p.41) with an unbending belief in papal supremacy that was bound to clash with the expansive notions of royal prerogative which John entertained.  Yet, the two headstrong personalities enjoyed a brief period of collaboration that led directly to the Great Charter.

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        Jones rejects recent attempts of historians to rehabilitate John’s reputation. “Bad King John” seems to summarize well who John was: a “cruel and unpleasant man, a second-rate soldier . . . slippery, faithless, interfering, [and] uninspiring . . . not a man who was considered fit for kingship” (p.28-29). Born in 1166, John was the youngest of five sons of the first of England’s Plantagenet kings, King Henry II, and Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine. Of the five sons, only John and his brother Richard survived to adulthood. Richard, known as “Richard the Lionhearted” for his “peerless brilliance as a military leader” (p.24), succeeded his father as king in 1189.

        Neither Henry nor Richard spent much time in England. Both were busy fighting adversaries in France and acquiring lands in Brittany, Normandy, and Western France.  Richard was also involved both in the Third Crusade to the Holy Land and in wars elsewhere on the European continent. On his deathbed, Henry learned that his son John had joined some of his leading French adversaries in plotting against his father. John repeated his treachery during his brother Richard’s reign: he provoked conflict with Richard’s royal administrators while his brother was away, attempting to seize control of government for himself. Without children, Richard died in battle in France in 1199 and John inherited the English throne.

         John began his reign fighting wars on several fronts in France. Within five years of his accession, he had lost “virtually the whole Continental empire that had been so painstakingly assembled and defended by his father and his brother” (p.33) — not without reason was he known as “John Lackland.” But John “never gave up believing that he was obliged – perhaps even destined – to one day return to the lands he had lost and reclaim them” (p.38). As he devoted the better part of ten years to reclaiming lost French lands, John needed to raise huge revenues. Wars in those days, as in ours, were expensive undertakings.

         John was relentless in exploiting familiar sources of revenue and spotting new ones. He sold immunity from lawsuits and charged aristocratic widows vast sums to forego his right to subject such women to forced marriage. He expanded the lands deemed royal forests, and imposed substantial fines on those who sought to hunt or collect firewood on them. He levied punitive taxes on England’s Jews. None of these measures were wholesale innovations, Jones indicates. What made John different was the “sheer scale and relentlessness with which he bled his realm. Over the course of his reign his average annual income was . . . far higher than [what] either his father or his brother had ever achieved” (p.38).

       But John was most ruthless in imposing taxes and fees upon England’s 200 or so barons, who officially held their land at the pleasure of the king. Pledging loyalty to the king and paying taxes and fees to him permitted a baron to live, literally, like a king in a castle, surrounded by servants who worked in the castle, knights who pledged loyalty to the baron, and serfs who tilled nearby land. Beyond basic rent, the barons were subject to a wide range of additional payments to the king: inheritance taxes, fees for the king’s permission to marry, and payments to avoid sending a baron’s knights to fight in the royal army, known as “scutage,” one of the most contentious sources of friction between John and the barons. John “deliberately pushed numerous barons to the brink of bankruptcy, a state in which they became highly dependent on royal favor” (p.50).

            As tensions between king and barons mounted over John’s “pitilessly efficient legal and a financial administration” (p.53), John also challenged the authority of the Catholic Church, the “ultimate guarantor” in 13th century England of the “spiritual health of the realm” (p.45).  In 1206, John found himself in direct confrontation with the church’s head in Rome, Pope Innocent III.  John objected vehemently to Innocent’s appointment of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury, an instance of an on-going struggle over ecclesiastical appointments, in which kings claimed the right to appoint bishops in their kingdoms and popes resisted acknowledging any such right. Langton’s potentially seditious ideas alarmed John. The pope’s nominee condemned the “avarice . . . of modern kings” and criticized those who “collect treasure not in order that they may sustain necessity, but to satiate their cupidity” (p.40-41).

            To impede Langton’s appointment, John seized lands belonging to the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Innocent retaliated by placing an interdict upon England, forbidding most church services, a severe sentence on all of John’s subjects, placing in peril England’s “collective soul” (p.45). Later, the Pope excommunicated John — the ultimate 13th century sanction that a pope could impose upon an earthly being, foreclosing heaven’s everlasting grace and exposing the hapless soul to eternal damnation.  The stalemate ended in 1213 when John, facing the threat of an invasion from France, agreed to accept Langton as Archbishop, pledged obedience to the Pope and the Catholic Church, and vowed to lead a crusade to the Holy Land. Through this “astonishing volte-face,” John could henceforth claim “special protection from all his enemies as a personal vassal of the pope” (p.57).  For his part, Innocent had shown “remarkable moral flexibility,” blending seamlessly the “Christian principle of forgiving one’s enemies with a willingness to consort with almost anyone who he thought could help him achieve his heartfelt desire to smite the Muslims of the Middle East” (p.89).

          Having made his peace with Rome, John pursued his quest to retake previously lost lands in France.  He suffered a humiliating loss  in 1214 at the town of Bouvines in Northern France to forces aligned with French King Phillip Augustus.  After this catastrophic debacle, and with his “foreign policy and military reputation now severely tarnished,” John returned to England to find the “chorus of baronial anger at his high-handed brand of kingship louder than ever” (p.63). A group of barons, but perhaps not a majority, formally renounced their fealty to John, thereby “declaring themselves free to make war upon him” (p.105). Having “unilaterally defied their lord and freed themselves from the feudal oath on which their relationship and the whole of the structure of society depended,” the barons were henceforth “outlaws, rebels, and enemies of the realm” (p.105).  John’s kingdom was “teetering dangerously on the brink of civil war. It was a war he could neither avoid nor afford to pursue” (p.63).

       In a mutinous spirit, the barons demanded that John confirm the Charter of Liberties, a proclamation issued by King Henry I more than a century earlier, in 1100, that had sought to bind the King to certain laws regarding the treatment of nobles, church officials, and individuals.   John’s response was to hold a council in London in January 1215 to discuss potential reforms with the barons. Both sides appealed for assistance to Pope Innocent III. John’s reconciliation with the pope two years earlier turned out to be a “political masterstroke” (p.58). The Pope squarely took John’s side in the dispute, providing him with a key bargaining edge.

          From late May into the early days of June 1215, messengers traveled back and forth between the king and the rebel barons. Slowly but surely they began to feel out the basis for an agreement, with Archbishop Langton playing a key role as mediator. By June 10, 1215, the outlines of an agreement had taken detailed form, and John was ready to meet his rebellious barons in person. The meeting took place at Runnymede, a meadow in Surrey on the River Thames, about 20 miles west of London, a traditional meeting point where opposing sides met to work out differences on neutral ground. General agreement was reached on June 15, 2015.  Four days later, the barons formally renewed their oaths of loyalty to John and official copies of the charter were issued.

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         The bargain at Runnymede was essentially an exchange of peace to benefit the king, for which the barons gained confirmation of many long-desired liberties. The Runnymede charter was “much longer, more detailed, more comprehensive, and more sophisticated than any other statement of English law or custom that had ever been demanded from a King of England” (p.141). The written document was not initially termed “Magna Carta”; that would come two years later.  It consisted of 4.000 words, in continuous Latin text, without divisions. Subsequently the text was sub-divided into 63 clauses. “Read in sequence,” Jones writes, the 63 clauses “feel like a great jumble of issues and statements that at times barely follow one from the other.  Taken together, however, they form a critique of almost every aspect of Plantagenet kingship in general and the rule of John in particular” (p.133).

          Buried deep in the document were Clauses 39 and 40. Clause 39 declared: “No free man is to be arrested or imprisoned or disseized, or outlawed or exiled, or in any other way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land” (p.138). Clause 40 stipulates: “to no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice” (p.138-39). More than any other portions of the charter, these two clauses constitute the reason why the Magna Carta remained consequential over the course of the following eight centuries. The two clauses enshrine, Jones states, the “basic idea that justice should always restrain the power of government” (p.139). They contain in embryo form the modern notions of due process of law and judgment by equals.

     But these clauses were far from priorities for either side. The charter’s first substantive clause affirmed that “the English Church shall be free” (p.134), a clause inserted at Archbishop Langton’s urging to limit the king from interfering in church appointments. Although the Magna Carta is “often thought to be a document concerned with the secular rights of subjects or citizens,” in 1215 its religious considerations were “given pride of place” (p.135).   Subsequent clauses restrained the king’s right to impose taxes upon the barons.

      The charter explicitly limited the authority of the Exchequer – the king’s treasury, the “most important institution of royal government” (p.14-15) – to impose inheritance taxes, so that it could no longer “extort, bully and ruin anyone whom the king happened merely to dislike” (p.136). Scutage, the tax exacted as an alternative to service in the king’s armies, was to be imposed only after taking the “common counsel of the realm” (p.136), foreshadowing the notion developed later in the 13th and 14th centuries that taxes could be imposed only after formal meetings between the king and his subjects.

        Clause 61, known as the “security clause,” was arguably of greatest importance to the barons. It established a panel of 25 specially elected barons empowered to hold John to his word. If John were to “transgress against any of the articles of peace” (p.140), the clause entitled the barons to renounce their loyalty to the king and take appropriate action, including taking the king’s castles, lands and possessions.  The security clause was the first mechanism in English history to allow the “community of the realm to override the king’s authority when that authority was abused” (p.140). More bluntly, if John were to backslide on his obligations under the charter, the clause explicitly “allowed for licensed civil war” (p.140).

        Other clauses in the charter regulated bridge building; banned fish traps; established uniform weights and measures for corn, cloth, and ale; and reversed the expansion of royal forests that had taken place during John’s reign. There was also, Jones writes, much in the Magna Carta that remained “vague, woolly, or fudged. In places the document feels like frustratingly unfinished business” (p.139). Yet, beneath the host of details and specificities of the charter, Jones sees two simple ideas. The first was that the English barons could conceive of themselves as a community of the realm – a group with “collective rights that pertained to them en masse rather than individually.” Even more fundamentally, although the king still made the law, he explicitly recognized in the charter that he had a duty to “obey [the law] as well” (p.141).

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          The weeks that followed the breakup of the meeting at Runnymede were, as Jones puts it “messy and marked by increasing distrust” (p.143). In the immediate aftermath of the charter’s confirmation, John was flooded with demands that he return land and castles he had confiscated in previous years. Prior to the end of June 1215, John was forced to make fifty such restorations to rebel barons. Seeing little advantage to the peace treaty he had agreed to, John convoked another meeting with the barons in July at Oxford. There, he sought a supplementary charter in which the barons would acknowledge that they were “’bound by oath to defend him and his heirs ‘in life and limb’” (p.144). When the barons refused, John wrote to Pope Innocent III asking him to annul the Great Charter and release him from his oath to obey it.

           Writing back with the “righteous anger that he could summon better than any man in Europe”(p.144), Innocent more than complied with John’s request. In words that left little room for interpretation, Innocent declared the charter “null, and void of all validity forever” (p.145). Under threat of excommunication, Innocent enjoined John from observing the document and the barons from insisting upon its observance. By the end of September 1215, roughly 100 days after its execution, the Magna Carta was, Jones writes, “certifiably dead” (p.145).

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          But the Great Charter did not remain dead.  Although civil war between John and the barons erupted anew in the autumn of 1215, the charter received new life with the deaths of the story’s two protagonists the following year: Innocent died in July 1216 and John in October of that year.   After John’s death, the charter evolved from a peace treaty imposed by the king’s enemies to an “offering by the king’s friends, designed to demonstrate voluntarily the commitment of the new regime to govern by principles on which the whole realm could agree” (p.184-85). For the rest of the thirteenth century, the Magna Carta was “reconfirmed and reissued at moments of political instability or crisis” (p.184-85). Even where its specific clauses grew irrelevant and obsolete, “much importance was still attached to the idea of the Magna Carta as a bargaining chip, particularly in relation to taxation” (p.186-87).   By the end of the 13th century, a peace treaty that lasted just a few weeks more than eight decades earlier had become the “founding stone of the whole system of English law and government” (p.189-190).

       Into this story of political intrigue and civil conflict, Jones weaves detailed descriptions of everyday life in early 13th century England: for example, what Christmas and Easter celebrations entailed; the tenuous lives of serfs; and how life in London, already England’s largest city, differed from that in the rest of the realm.   These passages enliven Jones’ study of the charter’s origins and immediate afterlife.

           In a final chapter, Jones fast forwards several centuries, discussing briefly the Great Charter’s long afterlife: its influence on the rebellion against the Stuart kings in 17th century England, culminating in the Glorious Revolution of 1688; how the charter underlay the rebellion of England’s American colonies during the following century; and its continued resonance in modern times.  The charter’s afterlife, Jones writes, is the story of its myth and symbolism becoming “almost wholly divorced from its original history” (p.5).  Jones’ lucid and engrossing work constitutes an invaluable elaboration of the charter’s original history, reminding us of the unpromising early 13th century environment from which it emerged to become one of the most enduring documents of liberal democracy.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

May 23, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

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