Tom Holland: Dominion

For me, Tom Holland’s Dominion was the book to look forward to in 2019. The reason was that I had had an epiphany similar to the one that moved him to begin a work focused on Christianity. Holland, known for his highly-readable books on ancient and medieval topics, had long thought of himself as a product of ancient Greece and Rome, but came in time to feel their brutality repellent: “the values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value.” Clearly he was not simply a product of antiquity, but also of something else. The piece in which he describes the realisation that Christianity represented an immense and crucial part of his own formation – and more generally of the formation of the world we live in today – is recommended reading in its own right. (This five-minute video gives a compact overview of some of the central ideas.)

Holland’s insights in that piece were particularly important to me because I had recently had a realisation along the same lines. The beneficiary of an entirely secular upbringing, I had almost literally not read a single page of the Bible, but a passing comment from a friend one day caused me to feel an absence in my education: he mentioned his ‘favourite book’ of the Bible. Although his upbringing was no less secular than my own, I was so far from having a favourite book of the Bible I couldn’t even give you the most basic account of any of them. Surely I, aspiring to be an educated person, at least ought to have some idea what was in there. So before long I was turning the pages of the New Testament, and reading this: “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy… Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The effect was rather like a lightning bolt. Why? Well, like Holland, I have spent a certain amount of time studying the ancient world, and the lines above brought one thought home to me with considerable force: you won’t read that in Thucydides’ History or in Caesar’s De Bello Gallico. What I was reading presented a fundamentally different ethos: such sentiments are in a very real way alien to ancient Greece and Rome. It’s not the case that thoughts along these lines were absolutely absent from the ancient world – one thinks, for example, of Socrates’ arguments in the Gorgias that it is better to suffer than to perform an injustice – but such talk was peculiar and unusual, fundamentally antinomian: recall the exasperation of Socrates’ opponents as he makes those arguments, and how his own ideas are said to be characteristic of someone whispering in a corner with a few boys. The idea that all people, even the weakest and lowliest, have an inherent dignity and worth, is not one you come across often – if at all – when reading the ancient classics.

I think that helps explain, for example, why we read in Aristotle of people who argued against slavery, but we don’t read anywhere of a successful abolitionist movement – and certainly not of a civil war fought by non-slaves over the question! (That Christianity played such an explicit role in 17th-19th century abolition movements, as well as in the civil rights movement in the 60’s – and don’t forget Nelson Mandela, who appears towards the end of Holland’s book – does not suggest its irrelevance in this regard.) Another conspicuous feature of our own time also seems to be best explained by means of Christianity: the guilt over past empires that forms a cornerstone of the contemporary Western Zeitgeist. I can’t think of anything similar in antiquity.

I thought about writing a blog post about all this, but I soon learned of Holland’s impending book, and I knew he would do a better job than I ever would. He did not disappoint.

The central theme of Dominion is this: a very great part of what has formed our world – of what makes us us – is Christianity. More than that, much of what makes our world good in the way that we think it is good, is Christianity.

The book was not at all what I had expected. I had thought that Holland would confine himself to the ancient world, bringing out in detail the foreignness, the otherness, of pre-Christian Greece and Rome, so as to bring out whatever the unique contribution of Christianity might be. What I found was quite different: Holland has written a narrative history of Western Christianity, or more specifically an episodic history of its influence upon us, starting with its ancient pre-Christian roots in Judaism and Greece, and reaching all the way to the protests that followed the election of Donald Trump. The result is more effective than anything I had imagined, because it allows him to show in real detail how certain aspects of the modern era that one might think novel are in fact only the more recent form of impulses whose roots go back two millennia (and which, as I think it through, are often not to be found at all in pre-Christian antiquity; I discuss a few examples below). The cumulative effect is utterly convincing. It has also given me a great deal to think about: this is not likely to be a book I read only once.

A work as rich and wide-ranging as Dominion cannot be properly discussed in a few thousand words, but I want to treat the points that struck me as particularly important. One aspect of Christianity that has been lost to us is a sense of its initial strangeness, the way in which it inverted conceptions that defined the world in which it emerged. Nothing would seem less god-like to the Greeks or Romans than getting crucified, nor anything more bizarre than undergoing this for the sake of others. The gods were supposed to be overpoweringly strong, and were so far from being inclined to sacrifice themselves for others that there were numerous tales of the rapes certain of them had committed. Of course, it wasn’t just the crucifixion, but the teachings that preceded it that were a departure from contemporary sensibilities: “Woe to you who are rich!” “So the last will be first, and the first last.” Such words carry within them the basis for revolution, so that each Christian order carried within itself the seeds of its own overthrow. That is, whatever order comes to hold sway, however revolutionary it might have seemed at first, will eventually come to be associated with the rich, with those who are ‘first,’ simply by virtue of its success. It thus finds itself in danger, if it is a Christian order, of running afoul of its own first principles, of inviting revolution, or at least reform. The most remarkable such instance involves the behaviour of people who believe themselves to be entirely beyond Christianity in the West, who proceed in a manner that is deeply Christian: those who claim to be ‘woke’ (the name itself suggests an awakening of the sort long associated with a certain religion) focus on those who they believe most oppressed, such as women or homosexuals or trans-people, and create a reverse-hierarchy, in which the last are first, and the first last. This instinct to raise up those at the bottom would have seemed bizarre to an ancient Greek or Roman, to such a degree that I can’t think of any precursor to it in those ancient societies (if anyone can help me out here, do let me know).

In Dominion we encounter numerous examples of other revolutions that occur as the dominant state of affairs in each era come to be seen as falling short of the ideals to which the whole society, being Christian, has long professed. Perhaps the most eye-opening for me came in chapter nine, in the case of the 11th century ‘reformation’ (i.e., reformatio). I had not previously been aware of this episode, but Holland sees in it the birth of the secular as a realm distinct from the religious. A drive for the renewed purity of the Church – for example by demanding celibacy of priests, and by driving out the influence of temporal monarchs upon the papacy – as well as a power-grab on the part of that same papacy, produced a significant result: “for too long the rival dimensions of earthly appetites and commitment to Christ, of corruption and purity, of saecularia and religio, had been intermixed. Such pollution could not be permitted to continue.” Of course such a development does not come out of thin air. It can legitimately claim to be a further development of earlier Christian thought (e.g., Augustine’s distinction between the City of God and the City of Man), and also to have a basis in scripture (“give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”).

It also lays a foundation for what is to come. Although Martin Luther denounced Gregory VII, author of that 11th century reformatio, still, one result of the 16th century Reformation was, as Holland tells us, “not to dissolve the great division between the realms of the profane and the sacred that had characterised Christendom since the age of Gregory VII, but to entrench it.” I happen to have been doing a little reading on the Reformation lately, and it seems to me that Holland could have pressed his case at this point rather more strongly than he does: that we find here the conceptual basis of modern democratic freedom seems to me rather difficult to deny. Sweeping away the institutional authorities who had long claimed to be necessary to salvation, Luther points instead to the inner relationship of each individual with God, with a concomitant emphasis on freedom and individual conscience. This soon leads to one of history’s great statements of individual conscience, as Luther defies both pope and emperor – “here I stand, I can do nothing else!” – and also to Calvin’s view that people should be free to both join and leave the church. It also produces Luther’s famous statement on rights and duties: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, and subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Certainly these word pose a threat to the medieval conception of society, according to which people have quite different rights and duties according to their station, but they also point to the future, for they suggest a society of formal equals, without room for the many exceptions to that equality that had characterised the ancient republics.

It is certainly not self-evident that all men are created equal – except, perhaps, for those who have grown up in a society that has been marinated in such ideas for a couple centuries. Accordingly, in the lands which accepted some form of the Reformation, after a few generations have passed, we start to see experiments in democracy in various forms. What a coincidence! (Those who accept the Steven Pinker history of the Enlightenment, according to which it springs forth full-formed, like Athena from Zeus’ thigh, with very little debt indeed to the preceding millennium, need to come up with something to say about this astonishing coincidence.)

And of course, even as he is a founding figure of the modern protestant world – i.e., northern Europe and the English-speaking world – Luther is also trying to clear away what he considers the medieval deformations of his faith, going back past them to Augustine, and through Augustine, to St. Paul. That is, by going back to the Christian basics, he laid the conceptual basis of modern liberal democratic republics, whose character has proved very different from ancient republics like Rome or Athens. (As an aside, one thought I had while reading Holland was of the towering importance of Augustine, not simply as an important church father, but also as a keystone in the foundation of modern freedom.)

As I suggested above, one great merit of Holland’s grand-narrative approach is that he can bring earlier chapters to bear on later history, bringing home to the reader just how deeply based in Christian precedent certain later episodes are. So, for example, when he arrives at the sans-culottes in the French Revolution, he reminds us, “they were certainly not the first to call for the poor to inherit the earth. So too had the radicals among the Pelagians, who had dreamed of a world in which every man and woman would be equal; so too had the Taborites, who had built a town on communist principles, and mockingly crowned the corpse of a king with straw; so too had the Diggers, who had denounced property as an offence against God.” Anyone who has followed Holland to this point has read about the Pelagians, Taborites and Diggers in some detail, and can accordingly appreciate that an old pattern is recurring. Or consider Holland on Robespierre’s belief that human rights were eternal and universal, without any debt to Christian history: “there hung over this a familiar irony. The ambition of eliminating hereditary crimes and absurdities, of purifying humanity, of bringing them from vice to virtue, was redolent not just of Luther, but of Gregory VII. The vision of a universal sovereignty, one founded amid the humbling of kings and the marshalling of lawyers, stood recognisably in a line of descent from that of Europe’s primal revolutionaries.”

It may seem, on the basis of my account so far, that Dominion is a triumphal work, which seeks to whitewash the various forms of barbarity that Christians have perpetrated over and over again in the course of history. Nothing could be farther from the truth: Holland does not shy away from such realities, drawing attention repeatedly to the darker things done in the name of Christianity. He even notes that although the Nazis represented an utterly anti-Christian movement, they were nevertheless moved also by impulses that had first appeared long before: “the dream of a new order planted on the ruins of the old; of a reign of the saints that would last for a thousand years; of a day of judgement, when the unjust would be sorted from the just, and condemned to a lake of fire: this, from the earliest days of the Church, had always haunted the imaginings of the faithful.”

While reading, I found myself thinking about the negative side, and I now wonder if Christian moral universalism isn’t a sort of double-edged sword. This goes to the heart of what is so good about Christianity and what makes it so dangerous. One way to grasp what is unique here is to consider Luther’s two sentences about the freedom and duties of a Christian (above) in relation to the ancient world. As I try to think of parallels in antiquity, I’m inclined to think that strictly speaking, there are none: the Greeks and Romans don’t seem to have been as inclined as the moderns to hold forth on the universal rights of man. Still, perhaps Pericles’ lofty claims in the Funeral Oration about the justice and equality between Athenian citizens will do: what Pericles says applies to male Athenian citizens, not to women, not to slaves, not to subjects of the empire, and so on. There is no subsequent history in Athens (or in Rome) in which the implied exclusions are gradually included, and take their place alongside the original Athenian citizens as equals. In the modern era, the matter is different. The obvious example is the US Declaration of Independence, with its claim that all men are created equal: notoriously, the slave-holding signatories must have intended an implicit exclusion of at least some black men, women didn’t have the vote, etc. In this case, however, subsequent history did gradually involve the inclusion of those who had been left out, realising the full potential of the original universal claim about equality. I think something similar is true of Luther’s words about the freedom of a Christian: these are radically universal statements with immense potential implications that could easily lead to places he wasn’t planning to go (e.g., the Declaration of Independence itself, which inter alia founds a republic). Subsequent events burst the banks of his intentions, driving towards an ever more universal form of equality and dignity for all. So that’s the good side of what I’m calling Christian moral universalism.

There’s another side, however: once you have what you believe to be right for all people, you can’t leave other people alone, even in other countries (or perhaps in more recent decades: you can’t grasp that not everybody believes the same thing as you). There was a sort of tolerance in the ancient polytheistic world: it was understood that different states had different gods and different customs, and these were not the focus of inter-state relations or of conflicts between states. In the 19th century, however, if your local customs included slavery, you might soon find that the British were prepared to expend considerable effort and money to change your customs (Holland tells of the bewilderment of the Ottomans in 1840 as the British did just this). What lay behind this was a universal moral imperative that applied to all people; the ancient world knew nothing at all like it. The desire to eliminate slavery was also a significant motivation for the expansion of the British Empire into Africa. This universal moral imperative also finds expression as the imperative to convert others to Christianity becomes part of the story in times of conquest in the Christian era (e.g., the Spanish in the New World, or the Teutonic Knights in eastern Europe), something unheard of in the ancient world. Towards the end of the book, Holland also looks at the Iraq war, in which many in the West simply took for granted that their own values really were universal, and thus held by all. (This proved not to be entirely true.) These, at any rate, are my preliminary thoughts on all this.

I found the sections on Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, and the 20th century to be particularly interesting because they caused me to see thinkers and episodes that I had encountered before in a new light. The Christian basis of Marxism is not anything new, but Holland’s pages on Marx really are wonderful; only with great effort have I refrained from quoting them at length. And in the end, he does provide what for me was a major new insight: “the measure of how Christian we as a society remain is that mass murder precipitated by racism tends to be seen as vastly more abhorrent than mass murder precipitated by an ambition precipitated by an ambition to usher in a classless paradise.” The treatment of Darwin showed me that I really need to spend time thinking about the horrible challenge posed by Darwinism to ethical life: whereas on the earlier understanding man was made in God’s image, giving an inherent dignity even to the lowest and the weakest, on a Darwinian understanding, the weak have to die, and it is good (for the species) if they do (Darwin himself noticed this). And Nietzsche is fascinating all over again for the light he sheds on Christianity: he is a determined anti-Christian who understands the religion well, and does not pretend that nothing bad will happen as it is abandoned. I was reading Walter Kaufmann a little while ago, who does a good job of rehabilitating Nietzsche from the connections often made between him and the Nazis; I think Holland has pushed the pendulum back somewhat in the other direction for me.

Dominion was not my first book by Tom Holland, but my estimation of him increased immeasurably as I read it. Yes, he can still write history that reads like fiction, yes, he can make you almost feel like you’re present at certain key historical moments, but in comparison with what I’d read before, this book is an achievement of a different order. This is history of a genuinely intellectual kind, with deeply-considered reflections on the development of ideas in history of the sort that can seem at first to admit of superficial objections, but which prove upon consideration to be fully thought-through (in keeping with the book’s focus, I have decided to be charitable and to refrain from going through any examples of such objections). Holland describes himself as a “popular historian,” and while it is true that he is often not working from primary sources in this book, still what he has produced is of greater value than so much of what comes out of academia today, with its endless proliferation of minute inquiries. The fact that Holland has presented thought of this standard in such an accessible form is an important part of the achievement here: because his prose is such a pleasure to read, his thoughts will have maximum reach.

It took me until the fourth-last sentence to find something which seems to me really to strike the wrong note. Christians have often behaved badly, Holland says, “yet the standards by which the stand condemned for this are themselves Christian; nor, even if churches across the West continue to empty, does it seem likely that these standards will quickly change.” Certainly Holland has convincingly shown that even the most cutting-edge left-wing activity today is deeply informed by an unconscious Christian understanding – the same pattern of raising up the weak is playing out again – and the word ‘quickly’ ensures that he is strictly correct in what he says here. Still, the last part of that sentence is something I’ve begun to think about in recent months: as the West becomes dechristianised, it may be running on fumes, so to speak, as far as its most fundamental values are concerned. The moral universe of the future could be a very different place, a much more brutal place.

Sometimes I wonder if I see hints of what is to come. Consider, for example, the manner in which it has become acceptable in some left-wing circles to talk of ‘whiteness’ and white people. This constitutes an absolute abandonment of the legacy of Martin Luther King – or rather, the Rev’d Dr. Martin Luther King – whose approach to the issue of racial justice, being thoroughly and consciously Christian, appealed to a universal morality, a common humanity, and accordingly did not invite or allow the denigration of anyone on account of their race. ‘Whiteness,’ or rather, the readiness of certain people to speak of it as they do, could contain the seed of great future evils. Or maybe the appearance of sexual slavery in eastern Europe in recent decades gives us a glimpse of a more brutal future. I also think of Les Kolakowski’s suggestion that the fact that the Enlightenment and Christianity are going down together shows that the hope of a building an ethical order on reason alone was always futile. These, however, are large matters, for another time.

Whatever the future may hold, I have become convinced in recent years that an immense, objective change in the moral landscape began two millennia ago: the differences between ancient Greece and Rome, and what follows them, are too great to deny (which is not, of course, to say that those differences have a divine origin). Holland’s shows just how deeply this change continues to affect us. Given how little so many of us know about these things today, Dominion is likely greatly to deepen the understanding of most of its readers.

Finally, for those too lazy to read a book, there are now a few YouTube videos available which feature Holland talking about the substance of his book. These are well worth your time, insightful whether you read the book or not. For example, watch about three and a half minutes of this from 22:15 on the subject of the development of the notion of conscience in Christianity, of the notion that God’s law is written on the human heart, and how helpful this is for the possibility of progress, of recognising that things can be improved. This one is also good, as is this one (scroll to the bottom for the podcast). This podcast as well. The last 15 minutes or so of this is also on topic. [Oct. 20th] This is also worth a listen.

University Censorship, 16th Century Edition

In recent years I’ve found that I have ever greater cause to reflect on just how much our political culture has changed in the last decade or two. Things I read about years ago in history books – things that I assumed would stay in history books – are now to be found in the news. Here I want to present one example of this phenomenon, from one of my favourite books, Iberia by James Michener (a must-read for anyone interested in or travelling to Spain). The story he tells in the paragraphs below begins with a description of a place you can still visit at the University of Salamanca…

“…a stone-arched classroom left pretty much as it must have been on that day in December, 1578, when Fray Luis de Leon returned after an absence of some years. The rude benches without backs remain the same and the small windows in the outer walls. The lectern with its canopy is the same as the one at which the professor stood that eventful day. The room was crowded, not only because Fray Luis was the most famous of the Salamanca lecturers, a wise, gentle elderly man of sweet understanding and compassion, but because he had accomplished something that few men of his day could parallel.

In 1572, at the height of a brilliant career as Spain’s leading theologian and humanist, he was attacked by jealous persons in the university, who whispered to the Inquisition, ‘We all know that Fray Luis is half Jewish, so he’s suspect to begin with. But he has now translated King Solomon’s Song of Songs into the vernacular. He invites even the most ordinary man in Salamanca to read it. And that is heresy.’ Especially serious was the additional charge that often, after studying the original Hebrew version of the Bible, he would question the accuracy of the Latin. Fray Luis was apprehended and for several months was under interrogation, after which he was thrown into jail at Valladolid, where he heard only silence. At the end of a year he pleaded to be told what the charges against him were and who his accusers, but he heard nothing. His trial was intermittent and clandestine; all he knew was that he had committed some serious crime bordering on heresy, but its definition he never knew. Finally, after nearly five years of this, he was set free and, what was the more miraculous, allowed to return to his post in Salamanca…

This was the morning of his reappearance, and notable persons came to the university to hear his reaction to his long persecution. As he made his way from his rooms, his gown slightly askew in his usual careless manner, the university plaza was crowded with silent students. Fray Luis walked with his eyes straight forward, not daring to acknowledge the furtive glances of approbation which greeted him. As he entered the cloisters and elbowed his way through the crowd he came at last to the room in which he had taught for so many years, and when he saw its familiar outlines, with his friends perched on the narrow benches, and when he knew that among them must be those whose rumors had caused his imprisonment and who would surrender him again to the Inquisition within a few years (he was to die in disgrace at Madrigal de las Altas Torres), he must have wanted to lash out against the injustice he had suffered and would continue to suffer as a Jew and a humanist. Instead he stepped to the rostrum, took his place behind the lectern, grasped the lapels of his robe, and smiled at the crowd with the compassion that marked all he did, and said in a low, clear voice, ‘As we were saying yesterday…’ And he resumed his lecture at the precise point of its interruption five years before.”

I first read this passage in the 90’s, when it seemed to describe a past that had gone forever. In time I was able to visit the room at the University of Salamanca that Michener describes, and I thought of the story of Fray Luis with the same sense of peering into a long-disappeared world that I had felt looking at the forum in Rome or the cave paintings at Les Eyzies de Tayac. But twenty years later, the case of Fray Luis seems immediately relevant in a way I would not once have believed possible. Who today could possibly say that similar things cannot happen now? Who today could deny that they already do?

Did the EU Cause the Last 70 Years of European Peace?

Somehow I’ve gotten in the habit of listening to Sam Harris’ podcasts. He seems to have a gift for finding just the right words to express difficult thoughts, and he never fails to cover interesting topics, often joined by interesting people. So if I have to do some boring manual task – chopping vegetables or cleaning the living room – then Sam Harris it is.

One recent podcast had journalist James Kirchick as a guest, and the matter of the EU came up. Kirchick makes the case for the importance of the EU to European peace about as powerfully as one could (from about 51:55): “I talk to a lot of Europeans, and a lot of them who are Eurosceptics, who want to dissolve the EU. And I just ask them simply, ‘What’s your alternative? What period in European history was more prosperous or peaceful than the, basically, seventy years of European integration that you’ve had? Why would you want to risk that? Knowing what the alternative has been, why would you want to risk that by getting rid of this institution? And I agree, the EU has lots of problems… it’s too bureaucratic… I could go on and on. But to scrap it entirely, and to go off in this other direction when we know what’s happened historically, we know what’s happened… when all the European countries have pursued their national agendas at the expense of cooperation.”

This is, I think, a bad argument, but the basic idea behind it is treated by Europhiles as if it were a self-evident truth. I can remember roaming the streets of Brussels in 2015; I happened upon a music festival at which some EU dignitary soon gave a speech. “The EU gave you peace,” she declared. She did not try to argue or show how the EU produced peace; rather she felt able to take it as obvious.

I think there’s a need to push back against this, not only because it’s wrong, but also because the mistake can be dangerous. Certainly I’m willing to admit that the EU has made certain limited contributions to peace, but it has also undermined the basis of peace in Europe, and I’m inclined to think the latter effect is more significant than the former.

Before I say why, let me begin with a concession: the EU has made some contribution to peace. This past summer I was talking with a fellow from Portugal who told me that back in the days of Franco, the Portuguese had real fears of a Spanish invasion. That’s now over. Assuming this is true (I admit I hadn’t known this before), I think it’s reasonable to attribute some credit for this change to the European Union: by creating a focus for political activity over and above that national border, a situation was created in which local tensions could tend naturally to relax and disappear. Northern Ireland provides another example; there may well be other regional tensions that have been allowed to dissolve in a similar manner: the EU has, in certain local situations, been helpful.

But let’s not kid ourselves: in neither of the examples I’ve just given can anyone pretend that the EU has provided 70 years of peace. And neither the founders of the EU nor most of its present-day advocates were thinking of Ireland or the Iberian peninsula when they talked about peace. No, they were (and are) focused on The Big One: the Franco-German fault and the prevention of another general war. Here it should be obvious that the EU has been largely irrelevant.

There are many reasons we haven’t had another Franco-German conflict. For example, Germany has become an essentially pacifist country (I think this is no longer a good thing, but that’s another post). Of course it’s a good thing that the French and the Germans have turned to the path of reconciliation, and the EU was downstream from those efforts. But even if that had not happened, even if Germany had become an angry, hate-filled, militaristic country after 1945, and even if Germany had managed to put a new Hitler in command, still there would not have been another war: France had acquired nuclear weapons. I’ve explained elsewhere why I think Hitler was very far indeed from a military genius, but even Hitler would not have attacked a nuclear-armed France.

And of course, even absent that consideration, there is another reason that there was no third major war in Europe: after 1945, the world was suddenly a very different place, with very different concerns. Western European countries, above all the Germans, were focused on the east; on either side of the iron curtain, countries shared a common danger, and this inclined them towards a common peace with others on their side. Lessons learned from WWII meant that countries came together (in NATO) for common security. The atom bomb and the Americans were sufficient to keep the Russians from rolling the dice. After 1989, peace had become a habit, and anyway, the presence of overwhelming American power presented a significant deterrent.

Where, in all of this, did the EU play any role at all? If there had never been any move at all towards a European Union, at what point exactly, or in what respect, would its absence have been likely to bring about a major war? Looking at the actual situation since 1945, I can see reasons to give credit for seven decades of peace to the United States and to nuclear weapons. Certainly there were plenty of other factors that helped, but none were nearly so important as these two.

Let’s return to Kirchick’s questions: “What period in European history was more prosperous or peaceful than the, basically, seventy years of European integration that you’ve had? Why would you want to risk that?” Yes, we’ve had decades of gradual European integration, and these have coincided with seven decades of common peace, but it does not follow that the integration caused the peace. On the contrary, I think I’ve just outlined the major causes of that peace, and the EU isn’t one of them.

But I don’t think that people who give the EU credit for European peace have a specific scenario in mind. Rather, there’s a more general thesis at work: for the duration of its history as a plurality of countries, Europe has known constant wars; a different result requires a fundamental change; and a single European state would provide that by eliminating the plurality of interests that go along with a plurality of states. I suspect Kirchick is getting at something like this when he says “we know what’s happened… when all the European countries have pursued their national agendas at the expense of cooperation.”

But it is not the case that all wars are the result of conflicting national interests, nor that having one country produces peace, while having many leads to war. Canada and the US are two separate countries, not one, and they have been at peace for two centuries. In that time, the US, which is one country, not many, has had a civil war. So too has Switzerland, which is also one country, not many. So replacing many countries with a single country is very far from a guarantee of an end to war.

All this should suffice to show why I don’t think the EU deserves credit for seventy years of European peace. But in fact, I think the situation is rather worse than that: there are reasons to fear that the EU has made conflict more, rather than less, likely as we look to the future.

Above all, the fact is that bad thinking about the causes of war and peace is a very dangerous thing indeed. The thirties, in which the western democracies indulged in pacifist fantasies when they ought to have been focused on military power, give an example of the danger here. I find myself increasingly inclined to make a connection between the claim that the EU has caused peace and the general European indifference to NATO (an indifference manifested in the tiny number of EU members that reach the 2% of GDP obligation for military spending). That is, by repeating the mantra that the EU has been the cause of peace, one makes it easy to discount the importance of NATO (or, alternately, hard to see its importance). There is a widespread tendency towards a one-sided belief in the value of soft power here; to the extent that the US moves towards isolationism (we will have to see what President Trump does), that could leave Europe, particularly its eastern fringe, dangerously exposed, the very sort of situation that made WWII possible.

But there is a second, perhaps more important regard in which the EU has promoted the possibility of conflict: by the lack of wisdom in its actions and in its founding idea. The euro crisis and austerity has not been a cause of great love for Germany, particularly in Greece, and we haven’t seen the end of it yet. The attempt at forced migration quotas was similarly unfortunate, and could hardly have been better calculated to give fresh impetus to nationalist movements. Above all, the notion of a top-down replacement of national identities with a common European one was not wisdom. Yes, the last few major European wars were caused by excessive or extreme forms of nationalism, but it does not follow that the answer is to rush to the opposing extreme. Pride in local culture and achievements is an altogether natural thing, and identities built around this can be altogether benign. Attempts to impose an identity that ignores the natural attachments of most people greatly increase the risks of encountering the malignant forms of those attachments, in a backlash. The answer that the EU provides to question of peace in Europe is altogether too simple – indeed, it seems to me to refuse really to confront the problem. I do admit that simple solutions to complex problems may work in the short term.

This notion that there is at the very heart of the European project a source of danger, is one that the great English essayist, Theodore Dalrymple, has addressed on a number of occasions, often in a highly diverting manner. Consider, for example, the following: “The journalist … asked whether I thought that nationalism was dangerous. The question implied that the choice before Europe was between the European Union and fascism: that all that stood between us and the ascension to power of new Mussolinis, Francos, and Hitlers were the free lunches of senior Eurocrats. I replied that dangerous forms of nationalism existed, of course, but that in the present circumstances, supranationalism represented by far the greater danger. Not only was such supranationalism undemocratic, for it reflected no widespread demand or sentiment among the population; it also risked provoking the very kind of nationalism against which it was to stand as the bulwark. Further, the breakup of supranational polities in Europe tends to be messy, as history demonstrates.” (see also here)

I don’t mean to say that the EU has done no good in any regard, but surely it’s time to put this one to rest: the EU has not been the cause of peace in Europe in the last seventy years, nor has it been anything like one of the most important causes.

Active Participation

In the past week, as the US presidential election drew near, perhaps bringing catastrophe with it, I found myself thinking again and again of Sebastian Haffner’s book, Geschichte eines Deutschen. (The title means “Story of a German,” but the English translation is sold under the unfortunate title Defying Hitler, there evidently being an imperative to get the word ‘Hitler’ into a book title: Jesus saves, but Hitler sells). The book is a memoire of Haffner’s life growing up in WWI and Weimar Berlin, and then in the early years of the Nazi regime. Together with Haffner’s study of Hitler, it is the best thing I have ever read on Hitler and the Third Reich.

I read Haffner’s memoire more than a decade ago, but a number of particularly vivid passages have long stuck in my mind. Among these is a scene in which Haffner’s father finds himself obliged to express his support for the new Nazi government. I’m going to quote it at length, because it seems to me to touch on something relevant to our own times.

My father himself had retired long ago. He had no official powers any more and he could have done nothing to harm the Nazis, even if he had wanted to. It seemed as though he was out of the line of fire. But one day he too received an official letter. It contained a detailed questionnaire. ‘Under Clause X of the Law for the Re-establishment of the Civil Service, you are required to answer the following questions truthfully and in full… Under Clause Y, refusal to answer will entail loss of pension…’

There were a lot of questions. My father had to state which political parties, organisations and associations he had ever belonged to in his life, he had to list his services to the nation, explain this and excuse that and finally sign a printed declaration that he ‘stood behind the government of national uprising without reservations.’ In short, having served the state for forty-five years, he was required to humble himself again in order to continue to receive his well-earned pension.

My father stared silently at the questionnaire for a long time.

Next day I saw him seated at his desk, the form in front of him. He was staring past it.

‘Are you going to fill it in?’ I asked.

My father looked at the questionnaire, grimaced and said nothing for a long time. Then he asked, ‘Do you think I should?’

Silence.

‘I wonder what you and your mother would live on?’ he said at last.

‘I really don’t know,’ he repeated after a while. ‘I don’t even know,’ and he tried to smile, ‘how you will be able to go to Paris to write your thesis.’

There was an uneasy silence. Then my father pushed the questionnaire aside, but he did not put it away.

It lay on his desk for several days. Then one afternoon as I entered the room I saw my father filling it in, slowly and laboriously, like a child writing a school essay. Half an hour later he went out himself and took it to the letter box before he could change his mind. He showed no outward change in his manner and spoke no more excitedly than usual, but it had none the less been too much for him. With people who are used to restraint in word and gesture, some part of the body is invariably affected by severe mental stress. Some have heart attacks in such cases. My father’s weakness was his stomach. He had hardly sat down at his desk again when he jumped up and began to vomit convulsively. For two or three days he was unable to eat or keep down any food. It was the beginning of a hunger strike by his body, which killed him cruelly and painfully two years later.

Why, you ask, do I find myself thinking about this particular passage?

Item: a bakery run by Christians in Northern Ireland was taken to court for its refusal to produce a cake with the message, “Support Gay Marriage.” The court case recently came to an end, and the bakery lost: by refusing to make the cake, they committed a crime.

Item: a professor in Canada is being persecuted at present because of his objection to new pronouns (ze, zim, zer, and others) which are supposed to replace ‘he’ and ‘she.’ “I won’t mouth the words of ideologues,” he says, “because when you do that you become a puppet for their ideology.”

Needless to say, there has been an abundance of commentary on these two items, on either side, but I don’t think any of it has really gotten to the heart of the matter, and I think the Haffner passage I quoted does. In the case of both items, the demand is not that dissenters be required to tolerate others with different opinions, nor is it that they must refrain from criticising the dominant ideology. No, the demand is that people must be compelled to participate actively in support of an ideology they reject.

The question of whether we agree with each end in question is beside the point (me, I’d be happy to produce the gay-marriage-cake, but not to switch pronouns). The fact that these two items line up in the decisive respect with Haffner’s tale from the Third Reich is, I think, a window into a problem of our times. Progressive activists are not usually wicked people, and they act as they do out of a desire to bring about something good. Their myopic focus upon their own ends is to be expected of activists. What should concern us is rather the failure of society more generally to assert the right to dissent from what the majority believe. To the extent that we forget that right, we quickly find ourselves in some very poor company.