There are other ways of establishing authority

2 01 2017

Trump = Hitler? Nah.

Trump = Kaiser Wilhelm II? Hmmm. . . .


From Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers:

Like Nicholas II, Wilhelm frequently—especially in the early years of his reign—bypassed his responsible ministers by consulting with ‘favourites’, encouraged factional strife in order to undermine the unity of government, and expounded views that had not been cleared with the relevant ministers or were at odds with prevailing policy. (p. 178)


The Kaiser picked up ideas, enthused over them, grew bored or discouraged, and dropped them again. He was angry with the Russian Tsar one week, but infatuated with him the next. (p. 180)

We’ve yet to see the angry part, but it’s coming.

Wilhelm wasn’t content to fire off notes and marginalia to his ministers, he also broached his ideas directly to the representatives of foreign powers. Sometimes his interventions opposed the direction of official policy, sometimes they endorsed it; sometimes they overshot the mark to arrive at a grown overdrawn parody of the official view.  …

It was precisely because of episodes like this that Wilhelm’s ministers sought to keep him at one removed from the actual decision-making process. (pp. 180-81)

Not that those ministers’ decisions were always that great, either, but let’s see how much Trump’s advisers seek to, ah, shield him from having to make certain decisions.

It was one of this Kaiser’s many peculiarities that he was completely unable to calibrate his behaviour to the contexts in which his high office obliged him to operate. Too often he spoke not like a monarch, but like an over-excited teenager giving free rein to his current preoccupations.


And Clark is rather more temperate in his assessment of the last Kaiser than either Barbara Tuchman or Margaret MacMillan. Tuchman portrays him less the ‘over-excited teenager’ than petulance personified; in The Guns of August she notes

Envy of the older nations gnawed at him. He complained to Theodore Roosevelt that the English nobility on continental tours never visited Berlin but always went to Paris. He felt unappreciated. “All the long years of my reign,” he told the King of Italy, “my colleagues, the Monarchs of Europe, have paid no attention to what I have to say. Soon, with my great Navy to endorse my words, they will be more respectful.” (p. 6)

Like Clark, Tuchman observes a preference for aggressive words over aggressive actions:

He wanted greater power, greater prestige, above all more authority in the world’s affairs for Germany but he preferred to obtain them by frightening rather than by fighting other nations. He wanted the gladiator’s rewards without the battle, and whenever the prospect of battle came too close, as at Algeciras and Agadir, he shrank. (p. 75)

The Kaiser was also unhappy when his diplomacy/bullying didn’t work, peeved at the Belgians for their unwillingness to be peacefully invaded, and outraged at the English’s willingness to take up arms against him:

The Kaiser, in one of the least profound of all comments on the war, lamented: “To think that George and Nicky should have played me false! If my grandmother had been alive she would never have allowed it.” (p. 130)

Trump and the Kaiser also share an overestimation of their own abilities: “I need no chief,” said the Kaiser; “I can do this for myself.” (p. 331)

MacMillan most savors her roasting of the Kaiser, titling her chapter on him in The War That Ended Peace with the quote “Woe to the Country That Has a Child for King!”, but also giving him his due as an intelligent, earnest man whose position meant that his passions were never disciplined.

Wilhelm had a tendency, largely unchecked because of who he was, to know it all. He told his uncle, Edward, how the British should conduct the Boer War and sent sketches for battleships to his Navy Office. (He also gave the British navy much unsolicited advice.) He told conductors how to conduct and painters how to paint. As Edward said unkindly, he was “the most brilliant failure in history.”

He did not like being contradicted and did his best to avoid those who disagreed with him or wanted to give him unwelcome news. As the diplomat Alfred von Kiderlen-Wächter said to Holstein in 1891, “He just talks himself into an opinion. . . .Anyone in favor of it is quoted as an authority; anyone who differs from it ‘is being fooled.'” (p. 66)

To be fair, a fair number of us tend toward that last particular bias.

The Kaiser, as the Eulenburg case so clearly demonstrated, was not perceptive when it came to character. Nor was he good at understanding the point of view of others. Eulenburg himself, possibly the Kaiser’s closest friend and one who loved him for himself, wrote in 1903: “H.M. sees and judges all things and all men purely from his personal standpoint. Objectivity is lost and subjectivity rides on a biting and stamping stallion.” He was always quick to feel affronted but frequently insulted others. (p. 68)


Wilhelm was both lazy and incapable of concentrating on anything for long. Bismarck compared him to a balloon: “If you don’t keep fast hold the string, you never know where he’ll be off to.” Although he complained about how overworked he was, Wilhelm cut back significantly on the regular schedule of interviews with military chiefs, Chancellor and ministers which his grandfather had faithfully maintained. Some ministers saw him only once or twice a year. Many grumbled even so that the Kaiser was inattentive and complained if their reports were too long. He refused to read newspapers and tossed long documents aside in irritation. Although he insisted he would be responsible for the annual fleet maneuvers of his new navy, he lost his temper when he found he was expected to consult with his officers and work out the details: “To hell with it! I am the Supreme War Lord. I do not decide. I command.” (p. 76)

I do not decide. I command.

This goes on, as do all of these brief bios of the Kaiser—and I should not that I have yet not gotten hold of JCG Rohl’s highly regarded work on Wilhelm II—to offer up example after example of his self-regard, his insecurities, his bloviations, and his sincere belief in himself as a great leader and Germany as deserving of its place on the center stage of the world.

Two further things: One, it does seem that the Kaiser was sincere and not cynical, and that, perhaps, it might have been better had he been a bit more of the latter. He sought aggrandizement, yes, but as always tied to Germany. He may have been terribly wrong in his judgements, but there remained in Wilhelm II a naïveté that lends a kind of pathos to the man himself.

I see little sincerity in Trump, and if America is somehow not made great again, he will blame us for having failed him.

That said, whatever human frailties both men exhibit, they are unable to take them into account. They see themselves as masters whom others must serve, reserve the best judgements to themselves, and seem quite incapable of seeing others (whether as people or as nations) as having their own legitimate interests. They do recognize the interests of others, but solely in terms of their own interests, such that when they conflict, those others become enemies.  They dismiss complexity and the views of any which do not align with their own. The world exists for them, and to the extent the world does not agree, all the worse for the world.

Two, even after laying out these similarities, it must, however, be admitted that this kind of comparison is too easy. With so much information on both men, all it takes to make a comparison is to pull out those bits which, on the surface, appear the same. Whatever qualities these two men share are likely shared by other leaders, and their dissimilarities are easily trivialized. That I can not-implausibly write Donald=Wilhelm doesn’t make it so.

Still, there is that not-implausibility. I tweeted about this originally as a lark, a way to amuse myself on a December night, but whatever the caveats, I think a line can be drawn between Queen Victoria’s grandson and Fred Trump’s Queens-born son.

Not that there’s much comfort to be drawn from this. No, Trump’s not Hitler and his regime will not be a Nazi regime, but his authoritarian impulses—which, in an impulsive man, are rather worrying—can lead to an incredible amount of damage.

As the memorials across Europe can attest.

So if you think we live in a modern world

22 11 2016

I’ve mentioned before my attempt to grasp modern ideologies, an attempt since grown into a project I’m calling Modernity’s Ideologies.

Here, in maximally-minimalist form, is my sketch of the argument:

Terri Peterson ©2016

Terri Peterson ©2016. Do not quote without permission.

It’s hard to see (click to, y’know, see it), but the basic outline is MODERNITY as historical moment; Liberalism, Totalitarianism, and Reaction as worldviews; the attendant ideologies to these worldviews; and, finally, the types of regimes most compatible to these worldviews & ideologies.

The ideologies in the chart proper are referred to as ‘governing ideologies’: these refer to ideologies which offer a more-complete view of government and politics, which take account of individuals, groups, society, culture, economics, and governmental institutions. ‘Adjunct ideologies’, listed below the chart, are so-called because they are incomplete: they may cover some aspect of politics, but are unable on their own to provide a full and practical understanding of politics.

These are, of course, highly contestable claims; libertarians and anarchists, in particular, are likely to assert the wholeness of their ideologies (and, shoot, I should probably add ‘communitarianism’ to the list of adjuncts). I am unconvinced, although I do recognized that I’ll need to make the case for their adjunct status. As it stands, I argue that adjuncts may be fitted (more and less easily) with the various governing ideologies, that you could find, say, black liberation or women’s liberation accompanying liberalism or reform socialism—just as you could find white supremacism and anti-Semitism accompanying the same.

Anyway, the basic argument is that modernity emerges in European history and in so doing provides opportunities for the development of new worldviews, which in turn give rise to various worldviews. Liberalism and Totalitarianism are included on the same line insofar as both worldviews (or Weltanschauungen—I think I should stick to ‘worldview’ but oh, I’d like to sneak in that bit of German) accept modernity and the forward movement of time; Reaction rejects modernity and looks to the past.

Note as well that I list no ideologies coming out of Reaction. This is because I accept the view of ideology as a modern phenomenon; insofar as Reactionaries reject modernity, so too do they fail to develop ideologies. Reactionary regimes, however, lasted centuries into modernity: arguably, they didn’t disappear until the end of WWI.

And, again, this chart arises from European history: I make no claims about the history of ideologies elsewhere. Given that ideas, like people, travel—see communism in Asia, for example—I’m not arguing for the geographic and cultural exclusivity of these ideologies; rather, I haven’t done the work to make any claims one way or the other. Scholars steeped in the histories of the rest of the world would almost certainly generate their own, distinct, genealogies.

I have a lot of work to do: define modernity, define Europe, and then, oh yes, the worldviews and the ideologies themselves. I also have to make decisions regarding the spread of these ideas as Europeans colonized other parts of the world: do I stick strictly to the continent, or look European ideologies in, say, the Americas, in India, across Africa?

Finally, I’ll have a last chapter, ‘Post-Modernities?’ in which I’ll take up the challenges of those who think we’re already beyond. I used to be in that group, but now think, no, we’re still in modernity, frayed though it may be.

Anyway, when I refer in the future to any kind of ideologies, this is how I’ll be making sense of them. Whether it makes sense to anyone else remains to be seen.

When Johnny comes marching home again

11 10 2016

THE US IS NOT WEIMAR! I have shouted, hissed, flatlined, more than once.

And yet.

No, I’m not going back on that, but I wonder if a) the US was Weimar before Weimar was Weimar, and b) at least regarding the parties on the right, there isn’t something to the parallel.

B first: The Nationalist (DNVP, or German National People’s Party) was the main conservative party during the short-lived republic. It contained a mix of reactionaries and restorationists, militarists, aristocrats, and industrialists. It was anti-democratic, anti-Semitic, and rather constantly seeking to undermine whatever government (there were many)  was seated at the moment.

The old man, Hindenburg, won the presidency as an independent (but with the support of the old-line conservatives) in 1925 (thumping his former colleague Ludendorff, running as a Nazi) and beat Hitler for the job in 1932. When the Nazis won the most votes in the last free parliamentary elections in November of ’32, thereby paving the path to the chancellorship in January of 1933, Hindenburg crony (and Vice Chancellor) Franz von Papen famously told those worried about Hitler that ‘You are wrong. We’ve engaged him for ourselves.’ To another he said, ‘Within two months we will have pushed Hitler so far into a corner that he’ll squeak.’

Well, that didn’t work so well, not least for Papen: he and his wife were murdered during the Night of Long Knives in 1934. (Nope, wrong: Papen was only put under house arrest, served as an ambassador for Nazi Germany, was acquitted at Nuremberg, and only died in 1969. It was General Kurt von Schleicher and his wife who were cut down.)

Anyway, there are some rough parallels to be drawn, I think, between the Nationalists and establishment (such as it is) Republicans, and between the Nazis and anti-GOP Trump supporters.

Again, these parallels are rough: I don’t think Trump is Hitler or his more, ah, avid supporters Nazis, although there are certain shared enthusiasms across both sets of followers. And the GOP establishment cannot fairly be compared too closely to the Nationalists: while they certainly want to restrict voting and are less than fully committed to civil rights for all citizens, they’re not actively plotting coups or looking to eliminate the Constitution.

Caveats deployed, the energy and anger of the anti-GOP Trumpeters, their bitterness toward any Republicans not waving his flag does echo the melodramatic intensity of Nazis, with the more lukewarm GOPpers standing in for the old Nationalists.

And the hatred for Democrats and Clinton, the cries to make America great again, the sense that the country has been corrupted and must be cleansed? Well, yeah, that too.

Back to a.

My knowledge of American history isn’t great, so treat this comparison even more gingerly than the previous one:

Was the US, or, more specifically, the former Confederacy, during Reconstruction akin to Weimar? That is, a fragile republic, all-too-soon overthrown by forces which never accepted the legitimacy of the rule?

I’m not going to go on about this, because I know neither the history of Reconstruction and its dismemberment nor that of the imposition of Jim Crow, I don’t know how well the anti-republican (and -Republican) forces and the political cultures match up, and there are clearly major differences.


Still, the lines are there, aren’t they?

Lines are drawn upon the world

21 10 2015

Liberalism, conservatism, communism, fascism, feminism, environmentalism, libertarianism, anarchism.

Your basic soup of ideology.

I’ve taught an ideology class before, and yeah, I pretty much went through these (and their varieties): it’s bog-standard to compare these different bits to one another.

Yet I, of course, have come to disagree not only with myself but EVERYONE ELSE!!!

(Okay, I doubt very much I’m the only dissenter to this approach, but let’s pretend I’m being original, here.)

My crankiness with the standard approach stems from history, in particular, the combo of teaching the course of Weimar and my earlier musings on modernity. (I’m still musing, by the way, but to no particular end.) I wanted something which helped me to make sense of these histories, and for which history would help make sense of the ideologies.

Blah, blah, what I came up with was something centered on modernity (as historical epoch), which in turn lead to various ontologies (or Weltanschauung—hey, I’m doing Germany, so why not a little German?), which in turn give rise to various ideologies.

Here’s the basic idea: historical epoch

MODERNITY (historical epoch)
Liberalism (Weltanschauung)
…liberalism (ideology)
…varieties of communism
…varieties of theocracy

This is drafty—very drafty—but I’m trying to get at the notion that all of these ideologies in fact come out of world-views which are themselves formed in reponse to Modernity. In particular, I’m trying to get at the importance of the concept of time: of the past, and the future.

So, for example, while the ideologies of Liberalism hold to a more-or-less open future, those of Totalitarianism hold to closed future, some final, perfectible, end. Those of Reaction, on the other hand, reject Modernity’s social-linear notion of time and seek a return of past glories.

What I don’t include here, obviously, is any explication of what Modernity or the various ontologies or ideologies mean. I’m also not so sure about the ideologies themselves: I don’t think anarchism (or libertarianism, which I don’t include) are sufficient as governing ideologies themselves; it might make more sense to fold anarchism into socialism (as I implicitly do with libertarianism and liberalism).

There’s also the matter that these Weltanschauungen are ideal-types, and while the ideologies themselves are closer to the ground, the organization and experience of politics itself tends to slosh over any neatly drawn lines.

Finally, this schema may not travel well to other parts of the world. The experiences of China, India, and Japan (to name a few) are arguably not anchored in a response to Modernity: they’ve got their own things goin’ on. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some sort of overlap in ideologies, but I’d guess the underlying dynamics would be distinct.

I don’t think that’s a knock against this genealogy, however, to say that’s it’s limited: that tends to be feature of genealogies generally.

Anyway, this will take more work (I’ve already modified this from my original presentation in class last week), but I think there’s something there.

And ja ja, Hegel or someone probably already beat me to this. Guess I’ll have to get my own owl.

Map of the world

11 02 2015

My medieval-modernity project may have fallen apart, but I’m still hoovering up books about old Europe.

And the words do work for me—I’ve said in the past that I’m a text- rather than visually-oriented person—but sometimes, mmm, sometimes you need a map to make sense.

To cite one example: I just finished John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium (great fun: I want to track down the 3-vol. series), and I kept flipping between the copy and the maps at the front of the book to figure out where, exactly, were the boundaries of the empire or the position of yet another battle. It helped, some, but the maps were few and small and I couldn’t always determine where the characters or I were.

So I happened to ask my colleague and friend Jtte. if she had any suggestions for atlases (Jtte. does historical research and has constructed a number of terrific maps for her work), and she immediately said “William Shepherd, Historical Atlas“.

Shepherd constructed his atlas in the early 20th century, so I wouldn’t be surprised if archaeological work in the intervening years might yield different maps, but oh, are these maps beautiful.

Jtte. pointed me to the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at UT-Austin, which includes a section on historical maps, and a link to a 1911 and 1923-26 edition of Shepherd’s work.

Here’s one from the 1920s edition, of Asia Minor:


Reference Map of Asia Minor under the Greeks and Romans

Or this one, of Europe under Rome (I’m finally reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire):


Reference Map of the European Provinces of the Roman Empire

Click to make ’em see-able & zoom-able.

These are gorgeous, and a bit of a mess, but isn’t that exactly what an historical atlas should be?

Happily, the Strand had an 8th edition (1956, with maps added to Shepherd’s final 1929 edition), so I won’t have to go online to see, say, The Growth of Russia in Europe, 1300-1796 or The Ottoman Empire, 1481-1683 or or the Growth of Frankish Power 481-814 or or or. . . .

(Of course, the zoom feature is pretty handy: lifting my glasses and sticking my nose an inch or two from the page isn’t always enough.)

Oh, I am going toss away so many hours leafing through and peering at these maps, and to no discernible productive end whatsoever.

Ain’t knowledge grand?

Better stop sobbing now

11 02 2015

I have no sympathy for Christians who whine that President was unfair to Christianity at the National Prayer Breakfast.

Not just because I am not a Christian, nor because I disagree more generally with these folks’ politics.

No, the reason for my “get over it” response is their unwillingness to grapple with the violence woven into the history of the belief they hold dear. It’s as if they can only hold to Christianity if Christianity without [recent] flaws.

Oh, wait, that’s pretty much exactly what they mean, even if they didn’t mean to mean it.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a couple of posts on the response to Obama’s remarks, as does Jamelle Bouie, and they do a fine job of tag-teaming the No-True-Christian phalanx: here is this example and this example and this example and, oh look, another example of how Christianity was used to justify violence and oppression.

Reference to the historical record is crucial (even if the tres or quinque solas types want to claim history’s got nothin’ on them) if want wants to make or rebut historical claims—that’s kinda the whole point of historical claim-making.

But I want to focus here on the bad faith of those who seek to wash Christianity of its sins: they cannot abide criticism of their faith, not because God will punish them if they don’t savage the critics—I’d think such a position bonkers at best and murderous (see: killers acting to uphold the honor of the Prophet Mohammaed) at worst, but it has its own kind of insane integrity—but because it is “offensive” to and displays “contempt” for Christians.

And, yes, I get why these folks don’t like having the unsavory bits of Christianity against the unsavory bits of Islam—We’re good and they’re bad so how dare you!—but honest to pete, is their faith so thin that it is bruised by mere mention of imperfection?

I’m a pinko, and there has been all sorts of nasty shit—war, oppression, mass murder—done in the name of pinkoism. I can say Oh, but I’m not a Bolshevik/Leninist/Stalinist/Maoist, that’s got nothing to do with me, and nothing to do with Real Socialism, but that would properly be understood as a bullshit response.

I am an adherent to a tradition which has all too often failed miserably, murderously, to uphold its promises of liberation and the creation of a truly human society, and it would not be in any way unreasonable for you say, Uhhh, so why do you hold to ideas which have been used to justify those miserable, murderous failures?

And whether or not your motives were bad in asking this, I’d still respond, with both acknowledgement of the flaws in various incarnations of the socialist politics and a defense of the socialism itself—because I am fucking serious about my belief in socialism. As long as I think it possible to avoid or overcome the problems of previous socialist regimes, I will continue to think socialism is a program worth pursuing.

In other words, even though socialism has been flawed six ways to Sunday, I still think there’s something there worth hanging on to. I take socialism as it is, and as it has been, and what I think it could be. It ain’t perfect, but it’s all right.

Now, I understand that it’s easier to hold to imperfection in political than in religious programs, and my general sense that, well, to quote Leonard Cohen, there is a crack in everything, means that I can still see that’s how the light gets in. I don’t require perfection because I don’t think it’s necessary (which is also handy, given that I don’t think it’s possible).

Still, even you do believe that Christ were perfect, and that Christianity is the only path to salvation, it’s not clear why you can’t accept the bountiful historical evidence that that belief in something perfect has nonetheless been used to justify war, oppression, and mass murder. It’s a hard acceptance, sure, but if you want to argue on behalf of the Christian movement within history, then you have to engage that history, not wave it away or scourge those who dare to refer to it.

Again, radical sola types may not bother with history one way or another—all that matters is God, and we can’t really expect much of humans, etc.—but those who are incensed at the mere suggestion that Christian history might fairly be compared to Islam’s history clearly do believe that this history—the actions of Christians in the world—matters.

So to those who think history matters but are unwilling to look closely at it, I can only ask, Why not?

Because if you cannot accept the imperfections of Christianity in this world and still have faith in it, then I question whether you can have any faith at all.

Just let the red rain splash you

9 12 2014

The executive summary of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence torture report.

16 absolutely outrageous abuses detailed in the CIA torture report, as outlined by Dylan Matthews.

I was naïve, years ago, in my outrage at the torture committed by the CIA. Yes, the US had enabled torturers (see: School of the Americas) and supported regimes which tortured (see: US domestic surveillance and foreign policy), but somehow, the notion that torture was committed by US government agents seemed over the line in a way that merely enabling and supporting had not.

I don’t know, maybe US-applied torture was over the line in a way US-enabled/supported torture was not, and busting righteously through it busted something fundamental in our foreign policy.

But given, say, the Sand Creek and Marias massacres amongst the general policy of “land clearing” and Indian removal—policies directed by US politicians and agents—wasn’t it a bit precious to decry this late unpleasantness?

Naïveté, I wrote above. No: ignorance. I’d studied (and protested) 20th-century US foreign policy and ignored its 19th century version, the one directly largely against the indigenous people whose former lands now make up the mid- and western United States.

Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote that paeans to nonviolence are risible in their ignorance: Taken together, property damage and looting have been the most effective tools of social progress for white people in America. Yes.

A country born in theft and violence—unexceptional in the birth of nation-states—and I somehow managed not to know what, precisely, that birth meant.

I’m rambling, avoiding saying directly what I mean to say: there will be no accountability for torture. Some argue for pardoning those involved as a way to arrive at truth, that by letting go the threat of criminal charges we (the people) can finally learn what crimes were committed, and officially, presidentially, recognize that crimes were committed.

It is doubtful we will get even that.

Still, we have the torture report, and (some) crimes documented which were only previously suspected. Good, knowledge is good.

But then what? Knowledge of torture committed is not sufficient inoculation against torture being committed.

Coming clean will not make us clean.