It Goes Way Back…

The Roman Senate in Session

Lest you think that what is befalling the United States at present is of recent vintage, I urge you to consider the two great parties of the Roman Republic around 130 BC. There were two main political parties, the optimates (“the best ones”) and the populares (“favoring the people”). The former—consisting of members of the senatorial class and large landowners—were united in opposition to the tribunes Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and his younger brother Caius Sempronius Gracchus. According to Wikipedia:

For about 80 years, Roman politics was marked by the confrontation of these two factions. The Optimates favoured the ancestral Roman laws and customs, as well as the supremacy of the Senate over the popular assemblies and the tribunes of the plebs. They also rejected the massive extension of Roman citizenship to Rome’s Italian allies advocated by the Populares.

How familiar it all seems today! The Republicans, whose entire political platform could be expressed in the phrase “I got mine,” are fearful and apprehensive that the unwashed Democrats and their immigrant allies want a share of their wealth. Like the Optimates, the Republicans are “the best ones,” so whatever they do to hold on to power is quite all right with them.

Yesterday, I ran into an elderly woman at the Farmers Market on Fairfax who was a virulent Trump supporter. She thought that the black and other unwashed Barbarian hordes were after her money. I didn’t bother to try reasoning with her, because she was beyond reason. So I merely insulted her, as did the Afro-American gentleman who was in line with me.

I always thought that the nice thing about having money is being able to spend it in interesting ways. Not necessarily so! At some point, this woman inherited some money, problem from her late husband and decided to build an impregnable fortress around the proceeds against me and my kind.

 

 

Serendipity: Soviet High Society

Stalin and Members of the Politburo 1925

I have just finished reading Italian writer Curzio Malaparte’s The Kremlin Ball (Material for a Novel), a book that attempts to cover the high society of the Soviet Union as if it were Marcel Proust’s fin de siècle Paris. It is a strange book, probably because Malaparte was never able to finish it after numerous visits to Russia up to 1957, when he died. It makes it a tricky read, as one is never sure exactly what period the author is talking about in a particular chapter. Still, I loved the following picture of all those figures whose lives depended on the whim of Joseph Stalin.

Of that era’s Soviet high society, corrupt, always thirsty for pleasure, greedy for money, glory, and power, proud and snobbish, capable of any infamy in order to maintain their ephemeral power, ready to betray the people, the Revolution, communism, Russia, to deny their own revolutionary past, in order not to have to renounce the honors and privileges of their position, of that Soviet nobility corrupted by Trotskyism and Bonapartism, almost no one was still alive. L’ancien régime of the Communist Revolution, the new nobility that had emerged from the communism of the war and NEP [the New Economic Plan], made up of men who believed themselves to be Marxists and were actually nothing but krasni burjui, red bourgeois, who believed that they were the guardians of Marxist and Leninist theory but were instead Bonapartists, who believed they were leaders of the proletariat but were really leaders of the Trotskyite counterrevolution, had by then given up their positions to the élites of the Stakhanovites and the Udarniks [shock workers], and to the Stalinist élites who were tough and lean but nevertheless more human and born of the Five Year Plans. Of all the merveilleuses of the communist ancien régime, of all those men corrupted by ambition, hatred, jealousy, comfort, pleasures, and privileges, all that remains is memory: the “snapshots” firing squads caught of them in their supreme, ultimate moment, their pale faces turned toward the rifle barrels, their hands clenched in fists, their eyes widened, their brows enraged, the great wind of death unobstructed in the cold, squalid, magnesium light of the camera flashes that lit up, from some invisible height, the scenes of execution in modern Europe.

NKVD Firing Squad

Lend-Lease

American M3 Lee Tank Used by Russians in WW2

I have just finished reading David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House’s The Battle of Kursk, probably the authoritative study of the campaign that turned the tide on the Eastern Front against the Germans. (For some reason, I always spend part of every summer boning up on military history, particularly the American Civil War, the Roman legions, and the Second World War on the Eastern Front.)

The Soviets were greatly helped by the Lend-Lease program that provided the non-Fascist combatants in the war with surplus military equipment. Russia was the beneficiary of $11 million worth of war supplies (though Britain got the lion’s share), including planes, tanks, and miscellaneous trucks and other military vehicles. Even Britain and Canada joined in, as shown in the below photo:

British Valentine Tank Earmarked for the USSR

Of course, things didn’t always go smoothly. You might be interested in reading a memo by a Comrade Korobkov relating to miscellaneous problems with the tanks arriving by convoy to Murmansk.

The Glantz book contains a couple of amusing nicknames assigned by the Soviet troops to the gifted tanks. Because of its odd layout and insufficient armor, the M3 Lee was referred to as a “grave for seven brothers.” The unreliable and flammable British Valentine and Matilda tanks were called “field crematoriums.”

 

Kursk

It Was the Greatest Tank Battle in History

People in the United States know very little about World War Two as it was fought in Europe. The real war in Europe was waged on the Eastern Front, after Hitler invaded Russia in the summer of 1941. At first, it was all blitzkrieg, with German victories on all fronts and horrendous Russian losses. Things began to change after Stalingrad, however, when the entire German 6th Army surrendered to the Soviets.

The next big battle was at the Kursk salient. Hitler and his generals planned to attack the salient from two sides, take Kursk, and trap several Soviet armies. This was the intent of Operation Citadel, as shown in the map below:

Operation Citadel as the Germans Planned It

The German General Staff thought the Russians would take fright at the Nazis’ technologically superior tanks and surrender in droves. But the Russians—beginning with Stalin himself—learned their lesson in 1941 and 1942. In July 1943, Stalin realized he had more human and industrial resources to draw on than the Germans. This was similar to Ulysses S. Grant realization during the American Civil War when, after the Battle of the Wilderness, realized that he could afford to take more casualties than Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and still win.

Instead of pinching off the Russians in the salient, General Walter Model advanced only 10 miles on the north, where he was beaten by Rokossovsky’s Central Front. The real battle was in the south, where General Erich von Manstein battled with Nikolai Vatutin’s Voronezh Front over the town of Prokhorovka. Vatutin kept throwing rifle regiments, tanks, and artillery at von Manstein’s Army Group South until, after a 30-mile advance, the Germans could go no further.

The Russians had a very good idea of what the Germans were planning with Operation Citadel, and they had more men (at a 2.5:1 ratio) than the Germans, and more tanks (though not as good). So they planned carefully to fight to the last man, if necessary.

The Battle for Prokhorovka (The Germans in Blue)

By the time Vatutin and Rokossovsky had finished with the German army, there was no more blitzkrieg. Hitler didn’t know it yet, but from this point his armies were in retreat.
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Serendipity: A Plea from the Pagans

Winged Victory (Nike) bronze statue against background of Trajan’s Column and dome of Santa Maria di Loreto church. Rome, Italy.

I have always been fascinated by the period of transition from the Paganism of Ancient Rome to the Christianity of the last days of the Western Roman Empire. It was in AD 313 when Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the empire with his Edict of Milan; and it was in AD 476 when the Western empire fell.

Naturally, the transition was not sudden. In AD 375, the Emperor Gratian had the Altar of Victory removed from the Roman Senate, this despite the fact that most of the members of the Senate were still Pagans. On that occasion, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus complained to the emperor: “Grant, I implore you, that we who are old men may leave to posterity that which we received as boys.” He goes on:

All things … are full of God, and no place is safe for perjurers, but the fear of transgression is greatly spurred by the consciousness of the very presence of deity. That altar contains in itself the harmony of the members of our order and the good faith of each of them individually. Nor does anything so much contribute to the authority of the Senate’s decrees, as the fact that one body, sworn to the same oath, has resolved them. Greco-Roman Paganism is to us a ridiculous body of myths, but to the Roman Senators, making sacrifices to the Altar of Victory was not only patriotic but an act of piety.

Symmachus continues:

Let me use my ancestral ceremonies, she says, for I do not repent me of them. Let me live after my own way; for I am free. This was the cult that drove Hannibal from the walls of Rome and the Gauls from the Capitolium. Am I kept for this, to be chastised in my old age?… I do but ask peace for the gods of our fathers, the native gods of Rome. It is right that what all adore should be deemed one. We all look up at the same stars. We have a common sky. A common firmament encompasses us. What matters it by what kind of learned theory each man looketh for the truth? There is no one way that will take us to so mighty a secret. All this is matter of discussion for men of leisure. We offer your majesties not a debate but a plea.

This plea did not sit well with the new Christian orthodoxy of the empire. St. Ambrose wrote the official response, which was essentially that Christianity was replacing the old order of things.

Interestingly, it is now Christianity that seems to be on the defensive … to be replaced by—whatever.

 

The Camels of Fort Tejon

For a Few Years, There Were Camels as Well as Horses at Fort Tejon

One thing I forgot to mention in yesterday’s post about Fort Tejon was that the outpost took part in the ill-fated attempt to introduce dromedary camels to the U.S. Cavalry. It didn’t work out too well because the horses and other livestock couldn’t be controlled when they caught a whiff of the Sahara in their midst. The following commemorative plaque is from Fort Tejon State Historical Park:

An Experiment That Didn’t Pan Out

Finally, below is a cloth patch honoring the camels of Fort Tejon:

The Camels Were There for Only a Short While

Martine and I didn’t really see any trace of the camel presence at Fort Tejon, though I do not doubt that they occasionally appear in the military re-enactments that occasionally take place there.

 

Politics and Resentment

Robert E. Lee 30¢ Stamp Issue of 1957

My posting the day before yesterday entitled “Bulldozing the Past” ran into some opposition from two old friends of mine. I have a slightly different point of view toward figures of the past such as Robert E. Lee and Christopher Columbus. Both have become, as it were, figures of myth. I have two questions to ask:

  1. How dangerous are these myths today? —and—
  2. How dangerous is it to attempt to bury these myths as if they never existed?

Now I could see wanting to eradicate even the memory of Nazism, the Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot, the massacres between to Hutus and Tutsi, the racism of Slobodan Milosevich and Ratko Mladic, and any number of other episodes in the last several hundred years. One does not want to be associated with mass murderers.

Both Columbus and the generals of the Confederacy were associated with death on a large scale. Probably the quote that Lee is most famous for is the following: “It is well that war is so terrible. Otherwise, we would grow too fond of it.” As for Columbus, most of the death that came in his train was from diseases lurking in the Spanish caravels that laid low the native population of the New World by the millions.

The Italians of America, however, revere the memory of Columbus: The Genoan Admiral of the Ocean Sea was one of them. As for the Confederacy, the myths relating to the War Between the States relate to the Lost Cause beliefs that the South was right to secede from the Union. There were decades of resentment prior to the Rebellion as the South tried vainly to balance their slavery-based agrarian culture against the more industrial North. These resentments still abound today, so it is tempting to want to wipe the slate of history clean at several key points.

But didn’t Trump get elected because a number of flyover states felt resentment at being slighted by the Democrats, by the bi-coastal mafia, even by Hillary Clinton, who assumed she didn’t need their votes to win the presidency?

Erasing still active myths is a dangerous business.

 

Bulldozing the Past

Statue of Robert E. Lee on His Horse Traveller in Richmond

Liberals sometimes exhibit some nasty, ultimately destructive traits. I am dismayed by the current trend of paving over any tribute to Confederate heroes. Many of these Confederate heroes, I believe, deserve to be commemorated. The Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee, was by his lights a good man. So what if he owned slaves? He was a great military leader. Given what he had to work with, he was better than any general on the winning side.

General Braxton Bragg, after whom Fort Bragg is named, was nowhere near as deserving as Lee, but he was no ogre deserving only of ignominy. Even the memory of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the greatest cavalry general of the Civil War and the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, deserves to be honored—for some things.

There are no statues honoring Henry Wirz, the Swiss-born commandant of Andersonville Prison, who was the only Confederate officer hanged for murder after the war—and deservedly so.

I love reading about the War Between the States, and I honor the memory of the South’s greatest generals. Why mess with statues honoring them? Why change the name of Fort Bragg? Why ban the Confederate battle flag on NASCAR vehicles and displays? I am perfectly willing to coexist with history, even if some of my political allies are not.

Christopher Columbus Is Also in Danger of Having His Reputation Erased

Christopher Columbus is being eclipsed for the same reason. Again, by his lights, Columbus behaved like most Europeans loose in the New World. He was not an extraordinarily bad man like Pedro de Alvarado or Nuño Beltran de Guzmán, whose bloody careers led to the death of thousands of Mexican and Central American natives. I might not recognize Columbus Day as a major holiday, but few people do. But any attempt to blot out the history of his times only does all of us a disservice.

Who’s next to go? Thomas Jefferson? Abraham Lincoln? Where does it all stop?

 

Serendipity: London 1665 Bubonic Plague

The Bubonic Plague in London

As bad as the coronavirus is. it is nothing compared to the Bubonic plague. In 1722, Daniel Defoe published a superb work of reportage about the 1665 Bubonic plague in London entitled A Journal of the Plague Year. At the actual time of the plague, Defoe was only five years old; so it is actually a carefully researched work of fiction.

It was known to us all that abundance of poor despairing creatures who had the distemper upon them, and were grown stupid or melancholy by their misery, as many were, wandered away into the fields and Woods, and into secret uncouth places almost anywhere, to creep into a bush or hedge and die.

The inhabitants of the villages adjacent would, in pity, carry them food and set it at a distance, that they might fetch it, if they were able; and sometimes they were not able, and the next time they went they should find the poor wretches lie dead and the food untouched. The number of these miserable objects were many, and I know so many that perished thus, and so exactly where, that I believe I could go to the very place and dig their bones up still; for the country people would go and dig a hole at a distance from them, and then with long poles, and hooks at the end of them, drag the bodies into these pits, and then throw the earth in from as far as they could cast it, to cover them, taking notice how the wind blew, and so coming on that side which the seamen call to windward, that the scent of the bodies might blow from them; and thus great numbers went out of the world who were never known, or any account of them taken, as well within the bills of mortality as without.

This, indeed, I had in the main only from the relation of others, for I seldom walked into the fields, except towards Bethnal Green and Hackney, or as hereafter. But when I did walk, I always saw a great many poor wanderers at a distance; but I could know little of their cases, for whether it were in the street or in the fields, if we had seen anybody coming, it was a general method to walk away; yet I believe the account is exactly true.

Smoking Was Considered a Way to Avoid the Plague

As this puts me upon mentioning my walking the streets and fields, I cannot omit taking notice what a desolate place the city was at that time. The great street I lived in (which is known to be one of the broadest of all the streets of London, I mean of the suburbs as well as the liberties) all the side where the butchers lived, especially without the bars, was more like a green field than a paved street, and the people generally went in the middle with the horses and carts. It is true that the farthest end towards Whitechappel Church was not all paved, but even the part that was paved was full of grass also; but this need not seem strange, since the great streets within the city, such as Leadenhall Street, Bishopsgate Street, Cornhill, and even the Exchange itself, had grass growing in them in several places; neither cart or coach were seen in the streets from morning to evening, except some country carts to bring roots and beans, or peas, hay, and straw, to the market, and those but very few compared to what was usual. As for coaches, they were scarce used but to carry sick people to the pest-house, and to other hospitals, and some few to carry physicians to such places as they thought fit to venture to visit; for really coaches were dangerous things, and people did not care to venture into them, because they did not know who might have been carried in them last, and sick, infected people were, as I have said, ordinarily carried in them to the pest-houses, and sometimes people expired in them as they went along.

 

 

The Old World and the New

Columbus’s Landing on San Salvador in 1492

Because of my extensive travels in Latin America, I have become interested in the subject of how the discovery of the New World impacted on Europe. Due to the circumstances of my Coronavirus related social distancing, I have been reading up a storm. One thin book I noticed in my history collection was J. H. Elliott’s The Old World and the New 1492-1650 (Cambridge University Press, 1970).

The discovery of America was such a big event with so many aspects to it that Europeans had a difficult time wrapping their heads around it. Even though so much of the economy of Spain and the rest of Europe was affected by the flood of gold and silver brought to Seville by the treasure fleets, and even though so many new foods and social habits (smoking) spread across the continent, Europeans were somewhat nonplussed for the first couple of centuries after the conquest.

Elliott quotes 1 Corinthians 14:10-11 to summarize the effect:

There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification.  Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.

In his essay “On Cannibals,” Montaigne speculated on the Brazilian natives through the eyes of the Greek philosophers:

These nations then seem to me to be so far barbarous, as having received but very little form and fashion from art and human invention, and consequently to be not much remote from their original simplicity. The laws of nature, however, govern them still, not as yet much vitiated with any mixture of ours: but ‘tis in such purity, that I am sometimes troubled we were not sooner acquainted with these people, and that they were not discovered in those better times, when there were men much more able to judge of them than we are. I am sorry that Lycurgus and Plato had no knowledge of them; for to my apprehension, what we now see in those nations, does not only surpass all the pictures with which the poets have adorned the golden age, and all their inventions in feigning a happy state of man, but, moreover, the fancy and even the wish and desire of philosophy itself; so native and so pure a simplicity, as we by experience see to be in them, could never enter into their imagination, nor could they ever believe that human society could have been maintained with so little artifice and human patchwork. I should tell Plato that it is a nation wherein there is no manner of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name of magistrate or political superiority; no use of service, riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividends, no properties, no employments, but those of leisure, no respect of kindred, but common, no clothing, no agriculture, no metal, no use of corn or wine; the very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, detraction, pardon, never heard of.

Sometimes, I still think that Europeans still are trying to wrap their heads around the New World.