Archive for the ‘History’ Category

When I read about the death of the last British World War I veteran, I wonder if  in 20 or 30 years time World War II will similarly be reduced the level of historical curiosity, where the death of the last veteran is a mere human interest story.  As it stands, World War II remains prominent in our consciousness, but in the process World War I has been forgotten.

World War II is the biggest war in human history and will, God willing, remain so.  It also is tied up in a moral narrative that sustains liberalism.  W e know more and more about one aspect of the war because the Holocaust is front and center as an indictment of the Western World; the various military and foreign policy lessons of the war are assuming less and less significance. The Pacific Theater is nearly forgotten, other than as proof of American “racism” in dropping the nuclear bomb on Japan. So long as the narrative of the evil Western World persists, the human rights violations of the Nazis will continue to be given top billing, while the gallantry of the Allies, the evils of the Soviets, and the human suffering from the war in general will be suppressed. It is unfortunate that our historical memory is so shallow that the most recent world war obliterates the memory and lessons of all of its predecessors, and even its own lessons are simplified and channelled into a single narrative designed to advance the cause of liberalism.  We all are supposed to learn that appeasement and short-sighted and selfish nationalism led to Chamberlain’s capitulation and thus allowed the Holocaust, but we never learn the evils of hair-trigger alliances and transnational loyalties that set the powder keg off in the Great War, nor the similar mass murder committed by Communists during war and peace.

Our leaders and our educated classes have fewer and fewer reference points in making decisions about complex matters.  Obama’s shallow understanding of history is the perfect complement to Bush’s “One Note Johnnie” fear of appeasement.  I should hope that neither the Great War, nor World War II, both of which are great testaments to the capacity of man for evil and the costs of war, become so forgotten or misunderstood as simple lessons about “resisting aggression,” that anyone should be inclined to repeat them.


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The absolute craziest convention on Wall Street, at the Federal Reserve, and among academic economists is simply to ignore economic history before the Great Depression. It’s particularly wacky to do so as the Federal Reserve, which was billed as a means of avoiding economic dislocation after the Panic of 1907, was established in 1913. In other words, the Great Depression happened on the Fed’s watch.

What’s happening now to the economy: the bankruptcy of overly leveraged institutions, falling prices, a general sense of uncertainty, and calls for high levels of government spending and control are hardly unprecedented. We heard such rhetoric throughout the 70s. And this shift took place once before, in Europe, in the late 19th Century in response to the “Long Depression” of the 1870s and the associated anemic recovery.

For Christmas, I received among other books Norman Rich’s The Age of Nationalism and Reform, 1850-1890. This book might seem obscure and irrelevant to all but the most die-hard history buffs. But consider the following passage, and ask yourself if you think anyone at Lehman Brothers or on Bernanke’s staff like has had much familiarity with this episode and whether it might have been useful:

The 1873 crash set off an economic depression which was to continue for another two decades in the form of a slower rate of growth, rising unemployment, and a general feeling of economic insecurity. This depression appears to have been caused primarily by overspeculation and overproduction. There was a decline in the rate of railway building, and a consequent drying up of this immense market for goods and materials. At the same time European agriculture was depressed by the competition of cheap agricultural products from the interior regions of Russia, America, and Australia, to which the railroad had given access.

During the depression years there was an actually an increase in the real wages and a rise in the standard of living of many Europeans as a result of a steady fall in the prices of agricultural and manufactured products. The fall in prices, however, which brought hardship or outright ruin to many economic enterprises, together with the increase in unemployment and the overall sense of economic insecurity, aroused a widespread feeling of dissatisfaction with existing government economic policies and anger at the threat of foreign competition. The liberal doctrine of laissez faire was discredited as industry, agriculture, and labor alike clamored for protective tariffs and state aid. And everywhere in Europe, with the notable exception of England, the state responded to these pressures. The 1873 depression thus inaugurated a new period of state intervention in economic affairs which was to increase steadily to he present day. It also contributed to the growth of an economic nationalism which was to strengthen the burgeoning forces of political and ideological nationalism.

I used to feel somewhat sorry for Obama for the crises he must now manage, a good many of which were not of his making. But then I realized: he likes this situation and this is good for his personal goals, even though obviously quite bad for the country. Crises, real and imagined, allow someone like Obama to aggrandize power, push through the most radical and spendy proposals, and–like FDR–will make a great many people worship him even more without regard to results, so long as he manages his own image carefully. Far from feeling sorry for Obama, I feel sorry for my future children and grandchildren. It’s a scary time, and we have an immature and untested demagogue at the helm, whose historical loyalties are tribal, whose background is in the cesspool of Chicago politics, and whose outlook is replete with various artifacts of 1970s cracker-barrel liberalism.

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In time of despair, and on this Feast of Christ the King, let’s not forget the example of the 20th Century’s numerous martyrs, who witnessed Christ unto their death and demonstrated the world-changing power of a single, defiant act against the spirit of the age. 

On Nov. 22, 1927, a man dressed in street clothes was led through a crowd of photographers and politicians on his way to a firing squad in Mexico City. The photographers were present for this illegal execution — there had been no trial or even formal charges — because the Mexican president, Plutarco Elias Calles, the most rabidly anti-Catholic leader in the world at the time, wanted them to record the humiliation of a man desperately pleading for his own life. Calles badly miscalculated. The man walked calmly to the place of his death, asked to be allowed to pray, and then, in a voice neither defiant nor desperate, intoned the words Viva Cristo Rey! — “Long Live Christ the King!”

Through photographs distributed worldwide, the Jesuit priest Miguel Augustin Pro thus became the most famous martyr in Mexico’s anti-Catholic revolution early in the twentieth century.

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The next time someone asks rhetorically, “How could things possibly get worse?” consider the unfortunate history of the Russians after their revolution, as recounted by a knowledgable commenter over at Takimag:

First, we should consider the possibility that responsibility for the crimes of Communism can be traced to a Russian penchant for oppression.  However, the tsarist regime of terror against which the Bolsheviks fought pales in comparison with the horrors committed by the Bolsheviks when they took power.  The tsar allowed political prisoners to face a meaningful justice system.  The counsel for the defendant could represent his client up to the time of indictment and even beyond, and he could also appeal to national and international public opinion, an option unavailable under Communist regimes.  Prisoners and convicts benefited from a set of rules governing the prisons, and the system of imprisonment and deportation was relatively lenient.  Those who were deported could take their families, read and write as they pleased, go hunting and fishing, and talk about their “misfortune” with their companions.  Lenin and Stalin had firsthand experience of this.  Even the events described by Fyodor Dostoevsky in Memoirs from the House of the Dead, which had a great impact when it was published, seem tame by comparison with the horrors of Communism.  True, riots and insurrections were brutally crushed by the ancien regime.  However, from 1825 to 1917 the total number of people sentenced to death in Russia for their political beliefs or activities was 6,360, of whom only 3,932 were executed.  This number can be subdivided chronologically into 191 for the years 1825-1905 and 3,741 for 1906-1910.  These figures were surpassed by the Bolsheviks in March 1918 after they had been in power for only four months.  It follows that tsarist repression was not in the same league as Communist dictatorship.

We should always ask how broadly does a regime define its enemies.  If it is specific plotters and agitators, then the class of people treated badly (and treated so badly as to constitute injustice) is modest.  Most people have neither the time nor the courage to resist the established powers.  If the enemy is Kulaks, property owners, capitalists, and “enemies of the people,” then millions are in the crosshairs of power, as we witnessed under the Bolsheviks.

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John Lukacs, in his book Historical Consciousness, makes the following interesting point on the relationship of ideas and aesthetic impulses, which are reflected in one’s view of other nations:

The so-called isolationism of many Americans in 1940-1941 and the McCarthyism of others in the 1950’s often cloaked deeper, more hidden national and cultural preferences: relative Anglophobia and relative Germanophilia played their roles in these instances. Conversely, the Anglophile (and sometimes Francophile) sympathies of American humanist intellectualism in our times represented, too, something more than ideological preferences: they reflected historical inclinations toward certain cultural prototypes, since man of these people saw in Britain and in France still partial representatives of the ideas and of the culture of the Enlightenment; on the other hand the Germanophile (and often Hispanophile) sympathies of many American “conservatives” reflected not merely hidden sympathies for Hitler or Adenauer or France but their inclinations toward romantic, neo-medieval, and generally anti-Enlightenment cultural tendencies.

It seems that these tendencies express themselves today in the conflict of America’s mostly Catholic conservative intellectuals, including Russel Kirk, Father Sheehan, and Patrick Buchanan.  All wrote as critics of the market-oriented, liberal American consensus, while its defenders were mostly establishment Protestants and Jews, as well as agnostics. This divide expressed itself within the conservative movement’s clash between paleoconservative authors–Sobran, Francis, Fleming–and their opponents in the mainstream and neoconservative right, such as Lowry, Goldberg, Krauthammer, Podhoretz, and company. These ideological disagreement typically echoed in each group’s attitude about NATO, Russia, and Israel.  In contrast, the Francophilia of the far left is well documented, as is their sense of identification with the political structures and sexual attitudes of Scandanavian societies. Their seems little anti-Enlightenment feeling in their ranks, other than in the occasional “primitivist” celebration of places like Chiapas and Tibet.

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Greatest Hits

I realize with all the election blogging, some of my more abiding interests have fallen by the wayside.  I’ve tried from time to time to write an essay on some bigger issue:  history, religion, philosophy, and the decline of culture.  Here are a few that I hope some of my newer readers enjoy.

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