Monday, November 20, 2017

MM Movie Review: The Last Samurai

“The Last Samurai” is a 2003 film I shall classify as “historical fiction” directed by Edward Zwick and starring Tom Cruise, Timothy Spall and Ken Watanabe. In describing what the film is about one of the major problems with it comes up immediately. As it is entirely a work of fiction, there is some debate over exactly what events the filmmakers are trying to portray here. It depicts a washed-up American cavalry officer who is hired by the government of Meiji Japan to train the newly established Imperial Japanese Army. This officer, Captain Nathan Algren played by Tom Cruise, is a veteran of the Indian Wars who is haunted by his experiences, particularly the atrocities committed by his unit in fighting the American Indians. He is then pushed into acting as an advisor to the Imperial Japanese Army as they confront an army of rebel samurai. Algren is taken prisoner by these samurai rebels, comes to sympathize with their cause, seeing them as analogous to the American Indians who fought the U.S. government, and finally joins them in their “last stand” against the imperial army.

Teaching the Japanese what they already would've known..
One thing to make clear at the outset is that absolutely nothing even remotely like this ever happened in Japanese history. However, the events in the film are generally said to have been inspired by the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 with the leader of the samurai rebels, Lord Moritsugu Katsumoto played by Ken Watanabe, standing in for the historical figure of Saigo Takamori. The character in the film, however, is nothing like the historical figure and no one like the character of Captain Algren ever existed at all. He is portrayed as an alcoholic, haunted by demons from his past, forced to take a job because of his desperate poverty. His former superior officer who recruits him for this job in Japan is a moustache-twirling villain who is hired by equally stereotypical villainous Japanese government officials who are portrayed as cruel and corrupt, dominating the noble, young, Meiji Emperor to enrich themselves in collaboration with the unscrupulous Americans. Again, nothing like this ever happened. Captain Algren begins training the Imperial Japanese Army but, before he thinks they are ready, these men are sent into combat after a series of attacks by samurai rebels.

If all else fails...CHARGE!!!
For some reason, despite being hired simply as a military instructor, Algren accompanies these soldiers on their campaign and, of course, ends up taking part in the battle, effectively commanding them, they are wiped out easily by the samurai and Algren is taken prisoner. Held in the stronghold of the rebels in a remote village, he lives with the wife of a samurai he had killed in the battle, eventually learns Japanese and comes to sympathize with his captors. He trains with them, learns their ways, all in a part of the film that has caused many to refer to this as “Dances with Wolves” set in Japan. Finally, the rebel leader Katsumoto goes to the capital to attend a council meeting in which he hopes to convince the Meiji Emperor to see things his way. However, he doesn’t attend the meeting at all because he refuses to take off his swords, the wicked government officials try to assassinate him and Algren goes with him to prepare for the final battle. Algren becomes a samurai and fights with Katsumoto in the climactic battle of the movie against the Imperial Army, presumably based on the historic Battle of Shiroyama though of course what happens in the film is nothing like what happened in real life.

Brunet
The most obvious problem with this movie is Tom Cruise and his character. The Japanese did not hire American veterans to train their army. During the period of modernization the Meiji government did try to learn from the west but they were much more influenced by the European powers such as Britain, France and Germany than by the United States. The U.S. had obviously played the decisive part in opening Japan up to the outside world but after that point American involvement was minimal. Indeed, the closest historical parallel to the character of Algren is usually given to be Captain Jules Brunet of the French army, however his involvement in Japan was earlier than the period depicted in this film. He was involved in the Boshin War, part of the fighting over the Meiji Restoration, not the subsequent modernization that happened in Japan. This, however, necessitates pointing out another glaring inaccuracy in the film which is the attitude of the rebel samurai toward foreigners and foreign ideas and tools, particularly weapons.

Muskets and volley fire were long established
In the movie, the rebel samurai are portrayed as fighting for the pure soul of Japan, Japanese tradition and as a matter of honor only fight with traditional Japanese weapons. This means they do not use firearms. Pardon me for being blunt but this is flat out retarded. The samurai rebels of the Satsuma rebellion were, to an extent, fighting for traditional ways but they were not stupid and would not refuse to use weapons that would help their cause. The Japanese had been using firearms for centuries ever since the first Portuguese explorers came to Japan and showed them what they were and how they worked. The Japanese immediately built their own firearms and used them forever after. Ranks of ashigaru armed with muskets were a staple of Japanese samurai armies throughout the famous Sengoku Period. Prior to the period of isolation under the Tokugawa Shogunate, many Japanese daimyos made extensive use of firearms with muskets, artillery and naval canon. The man who began the reunification of Japan, Oda Nobunaga, was one of the most enthusiastic about these western innovations.

Personally, I have often imagined what might have happened if Oda Nobunaga had not been assassinated, imagining Japan being united and modernizing earlier and sailing out into the northern Pacific to get in on the colonization of North America via Alaska and California, but that is getting off topic. The point is that no one in Japan would have considered firearms to be dishonorable or even “foreign” at all considering that they had been making and using such weapons for centuries to the point that their warfare was dominated by them long before Commodore Perry ever appeared on the horizon. This also highlights the way the film tries to simplify everything by having one side working with foreign powers and the other side shunning them (aside from Algren of course who adopts Japanese ways). The open to foreigners versus nativist dynamic was not the primary element of the Satsuma Rebellion but would have been more closely related to that of the previous Boshin War. However, even then, it was not so simple as both the shogunate and imperial forces had foreign powers they worked with against each other. As the historical case of Captain Brunet demonstrates, the forces loyal to the shogun had French backers whereas the imperial forces had British support.

Saigo Takamori
Brunet himself wrote to Napoleon III that the daimyos loyal to the shogun were friendly to France and that their victory would mean a greater French influence in the future Japan. No doubt the British backed the imperial forces for the same reason. Neither were open allies of course and neither would have all that much greater a position of favor in Meiji Japan but the point is that each side had foreign support and the rebels were not so puritanical as to shun any and all outside assistance. They would even ultimately adopt a rather foreign government model with a republic and a president; the Republic of Ezo. Their system was, to an extent, inspired by that of the United States yet there was no significant American involvement in this and it all happened in 1869, long before the events portrayed in this film. Saigo Takamori, on whom Katsumoto is based, fought with firearms as Japanese armies had long done, he often wore the western-inspired uniform (most similar to that of the French army of the time) as did the earlier rebel leaders of the Boshin War. Captain Brunet, it should also be mentioned, quite unlike Algren, did not ‘go native’ but rather insisted the Japanese adopt French customs.

Moreover, Saigo Takamori was no isolationist or backward-looking reactionary. He had supported the imperial party in the Meiji Restoration, he helped in the modernization and formation of the Imperial Japanese Army and advocated the conquest of Korea as a way to unite the country, gain foreign respect and provide the disgruntled samurai with an honorable death in battle. Far from shunning western technology, he established his own network of military academies throughout his prefecture and opened his own artillery school. Rebellion broke out when the imperial government tried to disarm these academies, fearing they could pose a threat and inadvertently provoking the very rebellion they had hoped to prevent. Saigo Takamori agreed to lead the rebellion that had already broken out, wearing his western-style army uniform at the head of a column of well-armed men who had raided government arsenals in order to do no more than demand reforms and the removal of corrupt officials and their replacement by men of more traditional Japanese morality.

The Battle of Shiroyama
The film is correct in depicting Katsumoto as a reluctant rebel. Saigo Takamori was insistent that he did not desire war and was loyal to the Emperor, that his only concerns regarded the government but the government would agree to nothing under threat of force and so warfare ensued. However, unlike in the film, the rebel forces never won any significant victories over the imperial forces. Their final confrontation, the Battle of Shiroyama, was not like what was depicted in the film at all but was similar at least in so far as it was an extremely heroic stand against impossible odds. The rebels were outnumbered roughly 60-to-1, were intensely shelled and faced assaults by huge numbers of imperial troops until the last handful of survivors drew their swords and charged to certain death. Saigo Takamori did not survive the battle though there is some dispute as to whether he died of his wounds or committed ritual suicide. Either way, even those who blamed the rebellion for setting back the Japanese economy and causing the samurai class to be viewed with suspicion could not help but admire the heroism of Saigo Takamori and his men.

His Majesty the Meiji Emperor did pardon Saigo Takamori posthumously but it is rather overstretching things to say, as the film does, that this gave Emperor Meiji the courage to slow down westernization and insist on Japanese traditions being retained. This was not something that the actual Meiji Emperor needed to learn. His father had been the most vociferous in rejecting any foreign contact with Japan at all and the Meiji Emperor was always cautious and rather suspect when it came to foreigners from the very beginning. He simply understood that isolation was no longer an option and if Japan was to avoid being dominated by foreigners, it would have to become as strong as the other foreign powers and this, during his reign, the Empire of Japan managed astoundingly well.

Low ranking foreign devils meet the Emperor
On the whole, “The Last Samurai” seems rather too full of tropes and very much lacking in any semblance to actual history. It is very well photographed, the visuals are extremely good and it at least does not ultimately depict the lone westerner as the one who saves the day. Algren is just along for the ride. It can be very moving at times and does get some things right, at least in terms of overall sentiment, which is to say being ‘true to life’ rather than actually true. I did like the scene toward the end when the imperial soldiers all bow down in respect to the courage of the defeated samurai rebels. Actual history is practically nonexistent. What is portrayed is simply not what happened in the Satsuma Rebellion, the rebels did not refrain from using firearms, the imperial army was not inept and not trained by American soldiers nor would any hired captain ever have been allowed into the presence of the Emperor. However, the actors mostly do very well, it can be entertaining and you do get to see Tom Cruise get the ever living crap beaten out of him on several occasions. There is that.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The State of the Khmer Kingdom Today

The often overlooked Kingdom of Cambodia was in the news recently as the pliant Supreme Court ruled to ban the primary opposition party in the country, clearing the way for the ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen of the Cambodian People's Party to sail to (another) easy victory in upcoming elections. I tend to think that many monarchists pay too little attention to Cambodia, thinking that since the monarchy was restored, the important job was done and we could move on. The truth, as usual, is not so simple and I am particularly sensitive to this case. I have personal ties to the Khmer kingdom that make it impossible for me to gloss over. I have family who were involved in the war there, both the U.S. and Vietnamese interventions, a Cambodian cousin (by marriage) and another cousin who moved there with her family last year. If you know what the situation is like 'on the ground' you will know that Cambodia is nothing like its official description as a run-of-the-mill "constitutional monarchy". It is effectively a socialist dictatorship using the monarchy for cover.

A Khmer Rouge King
As usual, to understand the situation, one has to look back at the recent history of the Kingdom of Cambodia. Prior to World War II the country was effectively a colony as part of French Indochina. In 1941, thinking he would be easier to work with, the French authorities influenced the Crown Council to choose Norodom Sihanouk to succeed his grandfather as King. He remained in power during the Japanese occupation, declared independence from France at their prompting and essentially held power in the country ever since 1941 (he did abdicate for a time in favor of his father but still held control of the government during that time). He became extremely popular but as communist subversion increased in the country, King Norodom Sihanouk tried to play both sides of the fence between the French and later the Americans on one side and the communists, particularly China, on the other. Ultimately, anti-communist/anti-Vietnamese uprising resulted in the King being deposed in 1970 while he was out of the country and replaced by General Lon Nol. This caused King Sihanouk to do an 'about face' and urge his people to go to the jungle and join the communist Khmer Rouge.

When the U.S. pulled out of Indochina, the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 and enacted a puritanical, fanatical, communist makeover of the country with the King as their 'front man' on the world stage. This has led to some lasting controversy given that the Khmer Rouge butchered about a third of the entire population during their time in power. They were not removed until the ruling dictator, Pol Pot, insanely launched an attack on the neighboring Socialist Republic of Vietnam. He may have expected that his forces and China would crush the Vietnamese between them but he learned the hard way what the Americans, French and others, including the Chinese themselves, could have told him; fighting the Vietnamese is not something to take lightly. The Vietnamese basically wiped the floor with Pol Pot's forces, took over the country and installed their own government in 1979. One of the figures they put in power was a former Khmer Rouge cadre leader named (you guessed it) Hun Sen who had fled to Vietnam several years earlier. The Chinese did not approve of this, having backed the Khmer Rouge and because the Vietnamese were backed by Soviet Russia with whom China had a very tense relationship. However, King Sihanouk refused to go along with any pro-Khmer Rouge at this point, being glad to finally be free of them.

Prince Ranariddh
Under various titles, Hun Sen has effectively been dictator of Cambodia ever since the Vietnamese installed him after overthrowing Pol Pot. The UN finally got involved, held elections and the people voted to restore the monarchy so King Norodom Sihanouk was back but Hun Sen was going nowhere. He was forced to join in a nominal coalition government with the royalist party FUNCINPEC, an opposition party founded by the King and led by his second son Prince Norodom Ranariddh. It seemed like a basically normal constitutional monarchy from the outside but such appearances were deceiving. Hun Sen still had the strongest position and in 1997 carried out a coup against Prince Ranariddh when the Prince started to publicly complain about Hun Sen have more than half the power he was supposed to have. In the next elections, and practically every election in Cambodia has been deemed highly suspect, Hun Sen became sole Prime Minister and immediately began building up a cult of personality around himself as the "strong man" leader of Cambodia. King Norodom Sihanouk, who had more political experience than anyone, had his number from day one, famously referring to Hun Sen as the "one eyed lackey of the Vietnamese". However, Hun Sen still had opposition parties to deal with and the very revered King to at least hinder him if not stop him from doing whatever he wants.

The opposition parties were not terribly difficult to deal with. Hun Sen could always find an excuse to arrest opposition figures, suspend their rights or in some way make sure that his party came first in every subsequent election. A favorite tactic of his, used more than once, was to take advantage of the long-standing dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over the exact location of their border. Whenever an election was coming up, Hun Sen would send military forces to the border, the Thais would respond by sending their own troops to the border and this was used as justification for Hun Sen to declare a state of emergency and martial law, putting the army on the ground to make sure people voted for the CCP, and then backing off when the elections were over. The only one with the prestige to challenge Hun Sen was King Sihanouk who, while his actual powers were extremely limited, could be a major problem for the prime minister due to his widespread popularity. King Sihanouk could force Hun Sen to back down by threatening to abdicate and the King still had considerable support from China, though many Chinese communists wondered why they spent so much money on a foreigner and a monarch.

King Sihamoni w/ King Sihanouk
When King Sihanouk died, in Peking, in 2012 the largest obstacle to Hun Sen was removed. In my opinion, I think King Sihanouk wanted Prince Norodom Ranariddh to succeed him but, and again this is only my opinion, the Crown Council chose Norodom Sihamoni to be the next monarch. Prince Ranariddh had his problems, whether genuine or arranged by his enemies in the ruling party, who can say, but it seems to me that the Crown Council was influenced by Hun Sen to choose Prince Norodom Sihamoni because he wanted someone who would not pose a political threat to his hold on power and not be as difficult and opinionated as King Sihanouk had been. King Sihamoni seems a very nice man and all Cambodians should be loyal to him, however, it just seems to me that when your choice for king is a gay ballerina from France, you are probably choosing someone who does not fit the bill of a king likely to stand up to a dictatorial prime minister. The royalist opposition has been divided with Prince Ranariddh forming his own party for a time and it is anyone's guess if this was a legitimate internal dispute or not. Personally, I suspect the CCP of being involved in breaking up their biggest rival but I may just be paranoid. Anyway, the bottom line is that there is no longer a monarch with the experience, international support and local prestige to stand up to Hun Sen, the royalists have been troubled by scandal and division and now the primary opposition party has been banned and, it is no coincidence, just before national elections.

Cambodia still has ties to Communist China but the reality that people need to understand is that the country is a dictatorship under Hun Sen with a figurehead monarch. If you want to know who is really in control, it is not that difficult if you take a broad view and not get bogged down in the local political squabbles that often do not amount to munch (even the royalists have long been accused of being what Americans would call 'controlled opposition'). Remember that the communist Vietnamese "founding father" Ho Chi Minh had originally founded the Indochinese Communist Party and he expected and planned to become the communist dictator of all of what had been French Indochina, not just his native Vietnam. Keeping that in mind, recall that Laos is effectively under Vietnamese occupation to this day and that Hun Sen was first put in power in Cambodia by the Communist Vietnamese and has remained in power ever since. If you ever go to Cambodia you will also notice that the army officers all speak Vietnamese. That should be a huge, huge clue as to who is really in charge in Cambodia and who is pulling the strings of Prime Minister Hun Sen. The King is still there but Cambodia is still in need of a true royal restoration.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Dutch Nazis, Nationalism and the Monarchy

Regular readers may recall a past article on the Netherlands involvement in World War II in which mention was made of the Dutch equivalent of the Nazi Party, the NSB or Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging in Nederland (National Socialist Movement in the Netherlands) which was founded in 1931 and led by Anton Mussert, today the most notorious Dutch collaborator of World War II. There is much that can, I think, be learned from the relationship between Anton Mussert and Adolf Hitler, the Dutch NSB and the German NSDAP which should serve as a warning for people today who might have the right intentions but who should be on guard against any threats to separate them from their own unique identity and historic institutions. The NSB started out with the simple goal of wishing to stop the decay in Dutch society and restore the Netherlands to her former status as a major world power but ended up, by their increasing adherence to the German Nazi Party, fighting for the exact opposite of that.

As with many such similar movements, the NSB was originally most inspired by the fantastic success of Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party in Italy. They had swept to power a decade earlier while Hitler and his Brown shirts were still struggling. Because of this, the NSB, founded by Anton Mussert and Cornelis van Geelkerken, had more in common with the Italian Black shirts than with Hitler and the Nazis. The most noticeable difference was that they were pro-Dutch and not anti-Jewish, indeed, like the Fascists, originally had Jewish members. They were opposed to direct democracy, advocating corporatism rather than capitalism or socialism but were not revolutionary, planning to work within the existing constitutional framework to achieve power and enact their changes to the Netherlands legally. They pushed for national unity and favored the corporatist model specifically to end the labor-versus-ownership divide which caused strikes and to put occupational concerns over ideological divisions.

Their goal of pushing for a return to national greatness also meant calling to mind the glory days of Dutch history when the Netherlands had been a major power. This meant that they were not opposed to the Dutch monarchy, indeed they drew inspiration from many past members of the House of Orange and, most significantly for our purposes here, they wanted to see the strengthening and expansion of Dutch power around the world. This meant that they wanted to strengthen their position in the Dutch East Indies (modern day Indonesia) and to annex Flanders and French Flanders to create a “Greater Netherlands”. This would, of course, necessitate the break up of the Kingdom of Belgium and the NSB intended for the vast Belgian Congo to become a Dutch colony and, if possible, for the Netherlands to regain control of South Africa by restoring the Afrikaner republics as Dutch colonies united with their ancestral homeland. They expected to be a close ally of Germany but nothing more, pursuing their own national interests on the world stage. However, their friendship with the Nazi Party proved a double-edged sword.

Early on the NSB gained some surprising electoral success for a country which, then as now, was seen as a place where such a party would not be expected to do well. The NSB gained enough of a following for the socialists, trade unionists and major religious institutions to come out against them. The government forbid state employees from joining the party and the socialists formed groups to disrupt their events and prevent the NSB from getting its message out (the Antifa of the day). They reached their peak in 1935, saw support drop somewhat after that but they were still a force to be reckoned with when World War II in Europe broke out with the German invasion of Poland in 1939.

The decline in support for the NSB came at around the same time, roughly 1936 and afterwards, that the Nazis began to eclipse the Italian Fascists as their primary source of inspiration. Racial rhetoric and anti-Semitism began to appear and became increasingly common though never on the same level as these subjects dominated political discourse in Germany. One area of concern in this regard was the Dutch East Indies where the NSB had some sizeable support before the war. This is not surprising given that one of the primary concerns of the NSB was to strengthen and enlarge the Dutch colonial empire and so, naturally, they were not without support in the largest and most important Dutch colony. However, the Dutch East Indies was also home to a sizeable minority of mixed-race people who, like the Anglo-Indians for the British, were quite important to the smooth operation of the colony which constituted the vast majority of the Dutch empire. There was considerable concern that the racial rhetoric would damage the support for the NSB in the East Indies. As it turned out, that would prove the least of their problems.

Future Dutch Queen Juliana with exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II
Yet, it was partly the racial rhetoric of the Nazis that kept the Dutch complacent. When Hitler invaded Poland and Britain and France declared war on Germany, most people in the Netherlands expected to sit out the war just as they had done from 1914-1918. The German Nazis, after all, viewed them as their Germanic cousins of superior racial stock and this, along with the fact that the Germans had pledged to respect Dutch neutrality and the detail that the Dutch had not and would not be so foolish as to attack the Germans, caused many to think the war would pass them by. Their queen was even married to a German prince and the former German Kaiser was living in the Netherlands and had been protected by the Dutch monarchy from efforts by the Allies to have him extradited and hanged as a “war criminal”. It therefore came as a great shock when the Germans started bombing them, dropping airborne troops on them and had panzers racing across the border. The Dutch were caught completely unprepared and despite their surprisingly fierce resistance were only able to hold on for four days before being obliged to surrender with the government and Queen Wilhelmina going into exile in England (quite against her wishes as she was preparing to hand out rifles to her maids and butlers and defend her palace herself -she was quite a formidable old lady).

The Nazis occupied the Netherlands and, naturally, turned to their biggest local fans in the NSB for support in running the country and dealing with the local population. This brought about a dramatic change in how the NSB was viewed and by what the role of the NSB was to be in the destiny of the Netherlands. Formed in reaction to the Great Depression, the NSB had garnered much of its support from presenting an alternative to communism and Mussert had addressed record crowds to talk about an alternative to the alien ideology of communism and the recently discredited model of capitalism. However, as soon as the war touched the Netherlands, a war no one expected, least of all the NSB which thought the Nazis would never attack, bomb and invade their Germanic racial brethren which was also neutral, until they did, Mussert immediately got in touch with the Nazis and offered his country up for annexation by Hitler’s Third Reich and even proposed leading a secret mission to kidnap Queen Wilhelmina and present her to the Germans.

Anton Mussert, doing his best to look the part
Mussert had rather ‘jumped the gun’ in throwing himself at the feet of Hitler before Hitler’s forces had actually conquered the Netherlands with the result that the Dutch government found out about these messages and several NSB leaders were arrested though Mussert himself escaped and remained in hiding until after the German conquest was complete. When the dust settled, however, he was not immediately given control of the Netherlands as he had expected, Hitler appointing the Austrian Arthur Seyss-Inquart as Reichskommissar of the Occupied Dutch Territories. When Mussert approached him about being named head of state in place of the Queen, Seyss-Inquart referred him to Hitler and to Hitler the ambitious Mussert proposed a ‘Nordic Federation’ of Germanic countries under Hitler’s direction and with himself in charge of the Netherlands. Hitler brushed him off but Mussert went on, holding rallies urging for cooperation with the Germans but with talk of the “Greater Netherlands” being sidelined in favor of talk about the Netherlands simply having “a place” in the “new Europe” run by Germany and Italy. Later on, Mussert would propose that he himself should be Hitler’s ‘number two’ man in this new order but, again, Hitler brushed him off.

Nonetheless, Mussert remained devoted to Hitler, even publicly swearing personal allegiance to him and urged his people to do the same. In June of 1940, at a mass gathering, he called on the Dutch people to rally behind him in supporting Hitler and the German war effort and to renounce their allegiance to the House of Orange, the Dutch monarchy and the government-in-exile in Britain. The Dutch were thus given a choice and it was made very stark for them; Mussert or Queen Wilhelmina. Mussert had been the nationalist leader pledging to strengthen and expand the Dutch empire but now was more about having a favored position in German-dominated Europe so long as they behaved themselves. Hitler, it must be said, did little to encourage such expectations and never allowed Mussert any position of real importance. He was not the head of state, he was not the prime minister and was only allowed the sort of honorary title of “Leader” but with no official position or power to go along with it. On the contrary, the Germans would eventually show more favor to other NSB members who were more pro-German and anti-Dutch, one even proposing to replace the Dutch language with German.

Dutch recruiting poster for the SS
A new chance arose, however, to rally the Dutch to the Axis cause when the war was expanded to what Germany and Italy had always claimed was their real enemy; the Soviet Union. The Dutch had no desire to fight against the British but they volunteered in large numbers to fight the communist threat which had openly called for the subjugation of the world. The Netherlands supplied more volunteers for the Axis war effort than any other occupied country and the Germans were quick to make use of them on the brutal eastern front. Putting politics aside, the Dutch proved themselves in dramatic fashion, fighting with immense courage, many being highly decorated and taking dramatic losses in the process. Against the Bolshevik hordes, the Dutch fighting man had proven his worth and made incredible sacrifices in the process. However, just as the first year of the ‘Crusade against Bolshevism’ came to an end, Dutch nationalists would find themselves betrayed yet again when the Empire of Japan decided to get in on the global war. However, rather than joining Germany and Italy in war against the Soviet Union, it would be against the United States of America and, subsequently, against the Netherlands as well in order to seize the extensive oilfields of the Dutch East Indies.

Japan invades the Dutch East Indies
Once again, the Dutch were caught unprepared and had only minimal Allied assistance to call upon when the Japanese invaded, a massive operation that none of the western powers had previously thought Japan capable of. The Dutch set fire to their oilfields and their small colonial army offered gallant resistance but it was to no avail. Needless to say, the previously considerable support the NSB had in the Dutch East Indies immediately evaporated. It also caused considerable dismay at home. Imagine yourself being a proud, patriotic Nederlander; the NSB says they will lead you to a “Greater Netherlands” which will revive and enlarge the Dutch empire, making it bigger and better than it had ever been before. Then you are told that, instead, the Netherlands will be a subsidiary part of a greater Germanic federation but you can at least keep what you have and will be protected from communist subjugation. Finally, while your men are fighting and freezing to death on the eastern front alongside the Germans, you find out that Germany’s ally has seized your largest and most important colony, killed large numbers of your people and put everyone else in concentration camps. That sort of thing would tend to sap morale.

Queen Wilhelmina during the war
Now, still keeping in mind that you are a proud Dutch nationalist, possibly freezing to death on the Russian front, that while the side you are fighting for says your empire must be given up and your relatives in Southeast Asia are at the mercy of the Japanese, that Queen Wilhelmina, who you are told is now your enemy, is calling for the liberation of the Netherlands from German rule and the liberation of the Dutch East Indies from Japanese rule, fighting for the full restoration of the Dutch empire. You will also notice that all talk about South Africa is out of the question whereas Queen Wilhelmina had been the most sympathetic leader in the world toward your Boer brethren back in the days of their fight against the British, even sending a Dutch warship, HNLMS Gelderland, to evacuate the Boer President Paul Krueger from Africa and bring him to Europe. You might have even heard that the German Kaiser would not receive Krueger but in the Netherlands, Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch Royal Family gave him the warmest welcome in The Hague. Which side, that represented by the Queen, or that represented by Mussert, must have seemed the proper cause for any proud Nederlander?

Mussert had enough sense to see this and when the Dutch East Indies was invaded he appealed to Hitler to use his influence to get the Japanese to back off, to call off his “Honorary Aryans” in favor of actual Aryans as the Nazis might put it. Again, Mussert was ignored and Hitler and Mussolini quickly declared war on the United States in solidarity with their Japanese ally. Did this have an impact on the Dutch who were fighting alongside the Germans? Obviously, it could not have helped. Friction over Dutch officers being replaced with German ones in the Dutch SS volunteer legion had caused many to resign and the Dutch suffered heavy losses around Leningrad after being reformed in the spring of 1942. Later, their nominal commander, a former high ranking officer of the Dutch military, Lt. General Hendrik Seyffardt was assassinated at home. After their enlistments expired in the spring of 1943, by which time the Japanese had seized the Dutch East Indies, most refused to reenlist to fight with the Germans. Due to the lack of recruits, the legion was disbanded in May of 1943. When Mussert tried to protest against the reprisals taken by the SS after the murder of Seyffardt, Hitler would not even see him.

As Axis forces were being pushed back in Russia, North Africa and the Pacific, the Germans ordered the conscription of all former Dutch soldiers into their own army and SS legions. In response, the Dutch went on strike and nearly a hundred were shot in retaliation but there was little the Germans could really do, a dead man being rather less likely to work or fight for your war effort than one on strike. The NSB was decimated, most of its members dead on the Russian front or assassinated by the Dutch underground. When Hitler finally gave Mussert a last audience he informed the Dutch “Leader” plainly that he would never be given any political power. Still, he carried on even as June 1944 saw the Allied invasion of France, including over a thousand Dutch soldiers who had escaped the continent, fighting for their Queen and country. On September 5, fearing the approach of Allied soldiers, the remaining NSB members fled to Germany though Mussert notably did not, was taken prisoner and executed for high treason after the war.

The Dutch spent the last winter of the war starving and freezing as the Allied Operation Market Garden failed and the Germans cut off all supplies to punish their racial cousins. The only relief came from 11,000 tons of food dropped by American and British aircraft. Not long after, the German forces remaining surrendered and soon the Queen returned, met by a rapturous welcome. Interestingly enough, after Mussert was convicted and sentenced to death, he appealed to Queen Wilhelmina to spare him. The Queen he had renounced his allegiance to, the Queen he encouraged his people to abandon, the last hope Mussert had was for her to use her royal powers to spare his life. However, Queen Wilhelmina was not that sort and Mussert was executed by firing squad. He died for his persistent allegiance to a German ruler who never trusted him nor made any objection to the stripping away of Dutch territory. Queen Wilhelmina, on the other hand, would spend the end of her reign fighting to maintain the Dutch colonial empire in Southeast Asia, even while her own allies betrayed her and the business elites of the country criticized her for not conceding.

Dutch colonial troops march against Japan
There is a great lesson to be learned from the sad life of Anton Mussert and his NSB. His desire for the Netherlands to be stronger was certainly valid as subsequent events proved that neutrality only works if your neighbors are good enough to respect it. He was not a revolutionary, was not anti-religion nor was he anti-other races, simply pro-Dutch. His political views about disliking democracy and preferring a system based around occupational representation were, in my view, perfectly reasonable. However, his captivation with Hitler proved disastrous for himself as well as his movement. It certainly did his country no good but Hitler would have done with the Netherlands as he pleased regardless of whether Mussert was in the picture or not. He became so enamored with the idealized image of Hitler that he turned against the traditions and traditional institutions of his own nation so that, in the end, it was the Queen he betrayed and was fighting against who represented the cause of Dutch greatness while the side he was on was allied to a power which themselves claim to have been fighting a race war against his people and those like them. That is something everyone with a proper pride and self-respect for their own people and culture would do well to take notice of.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Mythical Monarchical Figures: Prince Jason

There may be no more appropriate figure to look at here from Greco-Roman mythology than Jason, prince and heir of the Kingdom of Iolcos. As mentioned previously, back when I was in school we still had to learn about these figures of pagan mythology but, as a child, what I first knew about Jason came from watching the 1963 film “Jason and the Argonauts”. I’m sure this has been remade by now because that’s all Hollywood does these days but, I have to say, the film I know was fairly true to the source material, certainly compared to another favorite, “Clash of the Titans” from 1981. The story of Jason was a very important one for the ancient Greeks, was also frequently retold by the Romans and is all about royal authority; the heir of a slain and defeated king who goes on an epic quest to win back his kingdom by obtaining the Golden Fleece which itself, because of this story, came to symbolize royal authority and kingship.

Jason
Jason, like most heroes of Greco-Roman pagan mythology, had an impressive pedigree. Not only was he the eldest son and heir of King Aeson of Iolcos in Thessaly (today the port city of Volos) but he was also the great-grandson of the god Mercury (or Hermes as the Greeks knew him). He was all set to have a normal royal life when everything went wrong thanks to his uncle Pelias, his father’s half-brother. Pelias had the same mother as Aeson, Tyro, but Pelias’ father was Neptune, god of the sea, which might explain a few things about this story but Pelias wanted to conquer Thessaly and so he attacked the Kingdom of Iolcos, overthrowing his half-brother and killing all of his children that he could find. Jason had only just been born and his mother and her ladies-in-waiting clustered around the newborn wailing as if he had been born dead so that Pelias would not kill him. Jason’s mother, Alcimede I, then smuggled the baby out to be raised by the centaur (a half-man, half-horse) Chiron. Pelias, now King of Iolcos, was told by a fortuneteller that he would one day lose his ill-gotten kingdom to a man wearing one sandal.

When Jason had grown up into strapping young manhood, he came back to reclaim his kingdom. Along the way the goddess Juno (Hera) disguised herself as an old woman and pretended to be drowning in the river Anauros. Jason, showing proper princely virtue, jumped in to save her, losing one of his sandals in the process. Obviously, when Pelias was presented with Jason, wearing one sandal, he knew his game was up. However, Pelias, while seemingly resigned to losing his kingdom, tells Jason that he must first retrieve the Golden Fleece. This was the golden skull and skin of a ram that was a gift of the gods (there is a whole other story about why and how it came to be) which brought health, wealth and prosperity to whoever held it and would be just the thing for a new king to have, particularly when his kingdom would be starting out in a sorry state. By retrieving it, Jason would also prove that he had been chosen by the gods and was truly the rightful king. Pelias, of course, also expected Jason might be killed on such a dangerous quest and solve his problem for him.

The Argo
Jason gathered a collection of Greek heroes to accompany him, including the Boreads, the sons of the North Wind who could fly; Orpheus, who could charm even the stones with his music; the Gemini twins from Sparta, the virgin huntress Atalanta, Euphemus, son of Neptune, who could walk on water; Telamon, father of Ajax, and even Hercules, strongest man on earth and son of Jupiter/Zeus and great-grandson of Perseus (who would also have been his half brother because ol’ Zeus couldn’t keep it in his toga). In other words, he had a crew of the best of the best and they set out on their ship the Argo to find the Golden Fleece at the end of the world. Because of the ship, Jason’s crew are known as the Argonauts.

Their first stop was the island of Lemnos, inhabited by bad smelling women who had had killed off all of their husbands. Evidently the
The Gegenees
Argonauts had been at sea long enough that the smell didn’t bother them and they fathered a whole new race with the women of the island, Jason himself producing a set of twins with the Queen. Hercules finally got them to leave and, while we are not told all of the details, you know the debauchery must have reached some pretty freakish depths if even the notorious hound dog Hercules thinks you’re debasing yourself and best to move on. Jason and the Argonauts did, next landing on an island in the Doliones where, while gathering supplies, their ship was raided by a race of giants with six arms called the Gegeines. Fortunately, Hercules was with the ship and managed to fight them off, however, while foraging for food with Jason, Hercules’ houseboy Hylas was pulled into a stream by some nymphs who wanted to make him their boy toy. Hercules then left the Argonauts to recover Hylas though, alas, he was never able to and eventually went on to his other adventures.

The Argonauts next landed in Thrace and found King Phineus of Salmydessus (in the film played by “Doctor Who” Patrick Troughton, I also cannot help mentioning that the part of Hercules was played by Nigel Green who was in a ton of great movies like “Play Dirty”, “Tobruk”, “Khartoum” and “Zulu”). He is being plagued by harpies who snatch away his food every day and so is starving. Jason and the Argonauts feel sorry for the old guy, even though this is made known to be punishment from the gods, and they deal with the harpies for him, chasing them away. In thanks, Phineus tells Jason where he can find Colchis, the land at the end of the world where the Golden Fleece is and that they will have to pass through the Symplegades of “The Clashing Rocks”. These are huge, rocky cliffs that smash anything that sails between them. However, Phineas tells them to send a dove through first to test if it is safe for them to pass before going in. The Argonauts sail on, reach the cliffs and did as they were told. The dove made it through, as did the Argonauts and the cliffs closed behind them, never menacing navigation again. There may be more to the story that I am missing, but I always wondered why no one just sailed around the rocks in the first place instead of always going between them?

Jason taming the fire-breathing bulls
Anyway, Jason and the Argonauts finally arrive at Colchis, at the end of the world which, according to the ancient Greeks, was a smaller world than we have today as the end of the world back then was apparently on the Black Sea coast of Georgia. Jason goes to see the local potentate, King Aeetes, and tells him to cough up the Golden Fleece. Jason has a pretty good story but, as with all of these stories, Aeetes agrees but only if Jason can accomplish a given set of incredible feats. Despite having fought six-armed giants and sailed to the end of the world, Jason thinks these tasks are impossible and practically gives up in despair, going all Hamlet on them all of a sudden. Fear not, though, for the gods have not forsaken Jason and the ladies of Mt Olympus get together to help him out. Juno tells Venus to tell her son Cupid (that’s Hera, Aphrodite and Eros for the Greeks) to made the King’s daughter Medea fall in love with Jason. He does and Medea then uses her womanly ways to motivate Jason into fulfilling his seemingly impossible mission. He must plow a field using oxen that breath fire but Medea gives him some magical, soothing, skin cream to protect himself. He then plants a field with the teeth of a dragon (not the Hydra unfortunately as in the film) which then sprout into an army of really strong but really quite stupid warriors known as the spartoi. Medea clued Jason in on how to deal with them though and he basically just hits one with a rock from a distance and they all get in a big brawl and kill each other (again, not the same as the movie which, in this instance, was far more exciting than the actual story).

Jason obtains the fleece (thanks to Medea)
Finally, the only task left to complete is to kill the insomniac dragon that guards the Golden Fleece. This dragon never goes to sleep and so is understandably irritable. However, again, Medea provides Jason with a secret weapon. She gives him a sleeping potion to make the dragon take a nap. It’s not as exciting as fighting the Hydra but it is certainly safer and it works. Jason grabs the Golden Fleece and sails away with his beloved Medea who made his dream come true. Unfortunately, Medea also was sort of a murdering psycho as she got away from her father by murdering her brother, chopping his body into pieces and throwing them in the sea, making her getaway while her father was trying to collect the remains of his dismembered son. Yeah, Jason should really be careful to stay on her good side. This angers Jupiter/Zeus who blows the Argo off course on its way back to Greece and they have to go to Cyrene to get purified by a nymph. They do so, Euphemus becomes King of Cyrene and Jason and the other Argonauts sail on.

Orpheus plays for the Sirens
Now, you probably were not wondering why Jason should have brought along a musician like Orpheus on this quest but, if you had been, the answer is that his centaur childhood guardian told him he would come in handy when passing the rocks where the infamous Sirens lived. The Sirens were bird-women who lured sailors with their irresistible song so that their ships would be dashed on the rocks and the men eaten. The Argos, on its way home, after being blown off course, must sail near the Sirenum scopuli and so Jason has Orpheus start playing his lyre, making such beautiful music that the Siren’s song was drowned out, could not be heard and their ship was able to pass safely. The only other bump in the road, so to speak, was when the Argo sailed near the island of Crete. On the island of Crete was a giant made of bronze named Talos and he starting tossing huge boulders at the Argo so that the ship could not pass. Talos would have to be dealt with but, once again, Medea is the one who saves the day rather than Jason (really, once you get to Colchis this story could be called Medea and the Argonauts). She uses a spell to keep Talos dazed for a bit and then pulls out the nail in his ankle which unplugs his one and only blood vessel, causing Talos to bleed to death and allowing the Argo to sail on.

Jason and his prize
Jason and the Argonauts return with the Golden Fleece and are hailed as heroes. Jason is a little disappointed that his own father is too old and frail to take part in the merriment, so he has Medea use her magic to take a few years off of his life to give to his father, making him a little younger and more robust. That works great but the daughters of Pelias see the change and want the same done for their own father. Medea, who really seems to have a thing for this, convinces them that they need to kill their father, chop his body up into pieces and cook it in a pot for this to work, after which he will emerge looking like a young man. The airheads fall for it, kill their father and hack him up. Needless to say, after that, the whole ‘handing over the kingdom to Jason’ thing rather falls apart as Pelias’ son Acastus drives Jason and Medea out and they must go live in Corinth.

Jason, once again a prince without a kingdom, decides to make a marriage alliance with the King of Corinth by marrying his daughter Creusa. Well, as anyone with half a brain could guess, Medea flies into a rage when she hears about this betrayal by her beloved and recounts everything she has done for Jason. Now, true, Medea does seem to have been a murdering psychopath but it was her who basically made it possible for Jason to get the Golden Fleece and to get back home. Jason, however, says that since Cupid put a spell on her to love him, Venus deserves the credit rather than Medea. No, sorry Jason, that does not wash. Even if Medea had no choice but to love you, it isn’t as though you were treating her like a sister this whole time, you took full advantage of the situation and seeded two sons by Medea during this time, you don’t get off that easy! And, indeed, he did not as the women who butchered her own brother just as a distraction turns out to be the sort of woman you really shouldn’t make angry. She put a curse on Creusa’s wedding dress, causing it to burn her alive, murders her two sons by Jason and then flees to Athens in a chariot of light pulled by dragons sent by the sun god (her grandfather) Sol/Helios.

Order of the Golden Fleece
The only punishment Medea ever received was to have her name used in a long string of really ridiculous Tyler Perry movies. Jason, however, did go on to team up with Peleus, father of Achilles of Trojan War fame, to defeat Acastus and at long last reclaim the Kingdom of Iolcos though it would be his son, Thessalus, rather than himself who became King. Juno/Hera, who had previously looked out for Jason, abandoned him over his treatment of Medea and he died alone and unhappy, sleeping under the stern of the decaying Argo which rotted off, fell on him and crushed him to death. Not a happy ending but that really was not all that uncommon as these stories frequently made a point of the heroes being fallible. His story, of course, would live on forever. Even into the Christian era, the pagan traditions of Europe were not forgotten but were folded in and viewed as important lessons and symbols as well. Jason appeared in the pages of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, being tormented in the Eighth Circle of Hell. The Golden Fleece became a symbol of monarchical divine right and was eventually taken as the symbol for the Order of the Golden Fleece by the Burgundian Habsburgs, going on to be the preeminent order of knighthood for Spain and Austria. At the time of its founding, the enemies of the Habsburgs did note the pagan origins of it but, in a very Renaissance way, the Golden Fleece was reinterpreted, so to speak, to become a significant symbol for Christians, the quest for it being seen as the struggles one must go through to obtain the blessings of Christ, the Lamb of God.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Monarchist Profile: Lady Mary Bankes

The English Civil Wars produced a great many heroic figures and one of my favorites is Mary Bankes though not all that many seem to know her story. This is, perhaps, not surprising as she rather goes against the preferred narrative of modern feminists in that Mrs. Bankes was a staunch royalist. She was born Mary Hawtry in Ruislip, Middlesex, England to Ralph Hawtry, Esquire of Ruislip and Mary Altham though exactly when I cannot say. August 8 is sometimes listed as the day of her birth but the date seems very unclear as I have seen accounts of her being born as early as 1598 to as late as 1605. In any event, her early years seem to have been blissfully uneventful. In or about 1618 she was married to Sir John Bankes who would go on to become the Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas and Attorney-General to King Charles I of Britain. He was obviously a successful man with a fine legal career and in 1635 he purchased Corfe Castle in Dorset, with all attending manorial rights and obligations, from Lady Elizabeth Coke.

Sir John Bankes Esq.
Lady Mary was also quite successful at her task of wife and mother, giving Sir John ten children, six daughters and four sons (Ralph, Jerome, Charles, William, Alice, Jane, Mary, Joanna, Elizabeth and Arabella). However, their domestic happiness was cut short thanks to the antics of the Parliamentarians. In 1643 Sir John Bankes was called away by the King to take up arms against the enemies of the Crown at London and Oxford and so he departed, leaving Corfe Castle in the charge of his wife with their children, household staff and five fighting men for security. This would prove crucial as Corfe Castle was at the time the only armed royalist castle an the coast of Dorsetshire, having four cannons on its walls. The importance of the castle did not escape the notice of the rebel Roundheads (Parliamentarians) and not long after Sir John left about 40 Roundhead sailors appeared and demanded that the artillery be turned over to them. Well, Lady Mary was having none of that and promptly had her maids and the five men put the cannon in action and frighten the rebels away with a few shots.

That act of defiance showed what Lady Mary Bankes was made of but she also knew that it was a momentary victory and that the real importance of her position was the castle itself rather than the cannon. The enemy had retreated but were not far away and so she did, ultimately, decide to hand the guns over so that she could gather supplies which would enable her tiny household army to withstand a siege. This was very good planning indeed as not long after, in June of 1643, more Roundheads appeared, this time about 600 of them and laid siege to the castle. This went on for more than a month when the rebels began to feel rather silly being held at bay by a handful of men and some women and children so they began to attack the castle. Once again, Lady Mary, with her household, held off these trespassers by pelting them with stones and fiery embers from the castle walls until, after losing over a hundred men killed or wounded in August, the Roundheads conceded the victory to Lady Mary and pulled back.

The siege of Corfe Castle
It helped that a sizeable force of royalists was in the neighborhood as well and these came to call on the castle with Sir John even able to visit his wife and children briefly. A few more soldiers were left behind, bringing the total number of defenders up to 80 at most, but soon the situation shifted back to the way it had been before. The castle was still too important to abandon entirely and the rebel forces returned but remained at a distance. This second siege continued and continued for years. For Lady Mary, this was her darkest hour and at the end of 1644 her husband Sir John died at the age of 55, making her son Sir Ralph Bankes and the new lord of the manor. In spite of this heartache, Mary remained just as tenacious as ever and refused to surrender her fortress to the enemies of the King even as another year and another passed by. 1645 came and went and Corfe Castle still stood defiant, defended by Mary Bankes and her gallant little band. The enemy, perhaps remembering the more than a hundred casualties they had suffered trying to storm the place, simply remained at a safe distance to wait their enemy out.

The time for waiting finally ended in 1646. That year a young royalist officer, named Colonel Cromwell no less, managed to slip inside the castle with a small group of soldiers to offer Lady Mary the chance to escape. She was grateful for any help of course but refused to abandon her home to the enemy and, after all, she had been holding them off well enough for the past few years. However, this second siege would not go on for much longer, though, among her tiny force of children and scullery maids, it was one of the men of the small group of actual soldiers present who was to doom her little outpost. One of the men with her in the castle, one Lt. Colonel Thomas Pittman, slipped outside the castle walls to the enemy camp and offered to betray his King in exchange for his own safety. He persuaded the garrison commander, Colonel Henry Anketell to go to Somerset for reinforcements but the troops that came were Roundheads with their coats turned inside out. About half made it inside before Anketell suspected something and shut the small sally gate. Unfortunately, enough made it inside to secure key positions and hold them until morning when they were joined by a major Parliamentarian attack.

Modern ruins of Corfe Castle
Lady Mary Bankes, with most of her home overrun by the enemy, finally had no choice but to agree to surrender. Although, she did not do so until having her maids and children throw all the family silverware down a well so that it could not be melted down and used to fund the Parliamentarian cause. She was defiant to the very end. However, even the Roundheads were so impressed by her tenacity in holding off such superior forces for so long that they allowed her to keep the keys to the castle as a mark of respect. Not wishing to ever endure such an ordeal again, the Parliament ordered the castle demolished immediately. Lady Mary, for her part, retired to Eastcourt manor, purchased by her sons Sir Ralph and Jerome and remained there until her death on April 11, 1661. She was an extraordinary woman who earned an honored place in the pages of history for her steadfast and determined defense of her home for the sake of King and Country. Had King Charles I been blessed with a few more people with the courage and tenacity of Mary Bankes, he might just have won the war.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Story of Monarchy: The Byzantine Empire

Although it is a subject of great interest to me, I have been put off from talking about the Byzantine Empire because, in the past, it has invariably aroused bitter partisan vitriol that is completely unhelpful at best and detrimental at worst. Nonetheless, I can refrain no longer because this is an extremely important subject that people really need to know more about. Obviously, this post will only be a very general overview of the Byzantine Empire but I think it is necessary and anyone can look up particular items in greater detail on your own. Western civilization would likely not exist at all were it not for the Byzantine Empire and an important point to make at the outset is to emphasize that the Byzantine Empire is simply another word for the continuation of the East Roman Empire and the Roman Empire is absolutely essential and foundational for the entirety of western civilization. Certainly, Eastern Europe owes the most to the Byzantine Empire but Western Europe likewise owes an immense debt to the Eastern Roman Empire and neither would be what they are today without it.

Byzantine throne room
The Byzantine Empire, formally the East Roman Empire, was also known as the Later Roman Empire and, occasionally, the Greek Empire but it is important to note that the Byzantines themselves did not refer to themselves as “Byzantines” but as “Romans”. The name comes from the city of Byzantium on the Bosporus which dates to the 500’s BC. Originally Greek, when it was conquered by the Romans in the 100’s BC it became a relatively prosperous trading center until it was leveled and partially rebuilt by Emperor Septimius Severus. One could date the birth of the Byzantine Empire as far back as 293 AD when Emperor Diocletian first divided the Roman Empire into eastern and western halves, making his capital in the east at Nicomedia in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). However, the “Founding Father” of the Byzantine Empire is not usually considered to be Diocletian but Emperor Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor, who moved the imperial capital to Byzantium, renaming it Constantinople. Although the city of Rome would remain important for some time to come, from this point on Rome was eclipsed by Constantinople as the center of Roman wealth and power.

Tim Curry as Emperor Theodosius II
Emperor Constantine I ruled the entire Roman Empire and was succeeded by his three sons but the division between east and west returned. However, Emperor Theodosius I again ruled the whole empire himself, the last monarch to do so. It was also Emperor Theodosius who made Christianity the sole and official religion of the empire. After his death, Emperor Honorius ruled the west and Emperor Arcadius ruled the east. During this period, the West Roman Empire was repeatedly attacked by barbarian tribes, Alaric the Goth sacking Rome itself in 410 but the East Roman Empire carried on secure and prosperous by comparison. Emperor Arcadius was not the best monarch one could hope for but he was succeeded by a more able man, his son Emperor Theodosius II. From 408 to 450 Emperor Theodosius II ruled and ruled quite well, all things considered. He had wars in the east and rampaging Huns to deal with but he built immensely strong fortifications around Constantinople that proved invaluable, built a university there and established the Theodosian Code by reforming the existing laws. In his reign the East Roman Empire began to look like the united Roman Empire of old and seemed the more worthy successor to it than the battered west. Not long after his time, in 476, the West Roman Empire ceased to exist altogether, leaving the Byzantine Empire as the last Roman Empire standing.

This is important to remember, particularly for people in the west, because so many of the east-west, Catholic-Orthodox problems really date back to this point in history. People in the west need to understand, setting aside the religious disputes, that it was at this point that the Pope in Rome became much more significant and eventually a political as well as religious figure. However, all too often religion was used as cover for what were basically political disputes and the fact is that the Byzantine Emperors understandably considered themselves the legitimate rulers of the entire Roman world once the last Western Roman Emperor was forced from power. The religious differences between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are what they are but people in the west really should understand that it was not an illegitimate or unreasonable position for the Eastern Roman Emperor to consider himself the rightful monarch of the west as well once the west no longer had an emperor at all (in fact the Byzantines regarded Julius Nepos as the last Western Emperor as they had never recognized Romulus Augustulus). Many of the east-west tensions really come down to this basic, political and non-religious point; that there were people in the west with newly conquered lands and subjects who did not want the Emperor in Constantinople telling them what to do.

Emperor Justinian
The final, east-west religious break would not happen for some time, which is well enough as the religious situation was, by all accounts, frankly, a confusing mess with both sides having plenty of fashionable heresies to deal with. However, what is generally recognized as the “Golden Age” of the Byzantine Empire came with the ambitious reign of Emperor Justinian I, starting in 527. He was an able man and determined to see the Roman Empire restored to its former glory even if that mean reconquering the west entirely. It helped that he was an able military leader and it helped even more that he had one of the greatest military geniuses of the time to call upon in the person of his general Belisarius. Ever present threats remained to the east such as the Persians and the Arabs but Emperor Justinian fought battles to re-take the western empire, winning against the Vandals in Africa, the Ostrogoths in Italy and the Visigoths in Spain. Emperor Justinian had just about made the Mediterranean a ‘Roman lake’ once again while at the same time driving back the Persians on the eastern frontier.

Justinian & Theodora
Emperor Justinian had his problems with the Church of course but, in all fairness, the Church was having plenty of problems with itself at this time, the empire was wealthy and prosperous and the Emperor published a new, more complete, edition of the Roman law code which has since been known as the Justinian Code. The Emperor also oversaw the construction of the magnificent Church of Saint Sophia or Hagia Sophia in Constantinople which was one of the architectural wonders of Christendom. It may not seem quite so impressive from the outside but the interior, particularly in its former glory days, was astonishingly magnificent. There had never been a church like it before. Unfortunately, such building projects and unending military campaigns also left the Byzantine treasury basically empty by the end of the reign of Justinian. His passing was, in a way, the end of an era as he was the last Byzantine emperor to speak Latin and this, as well as his preservation of many old, Roman traditions, has caused some in the east to take a rather negative view of him as their hatred for anything western, Latin and/or Roman dominates their entire thinking. Justinian was not perfect as no mere mortal can be but he undoubtedly came closer than any other Eastern Emperor to restoring the entirety of the Western Roman Empire to Byzantine rule. Nonetheless, by the time he died, the government was bankrupt and the public rather put off, particularly regarding the many schemes of his ambitious wife Empress Theodora.

Emperor Maurice
The period which followed was one of seemingly constant crisis for the Empire. From 565 to 578 Emperor Justin II had to deal with barbarian invasions from practically every direction. The Germans were invading in the west, the Lombards were charging into Italy, the Avars, Slavs and Bulgars were attacking into the Balkans while in the east the Persians were back on the offensive as well. However, internal power struggles would remain a problem and this is why the very word “Byzantine” has become synonymous with devious plots and palace intrigue. Emperor Maurice, for example, had great success in fighting back against the Persians and against the Avars in the Balkans, pushing beyond the Danube for the first time in centuries and took steps to maintain footholds in Italy and Africa. However, he was assassinated in 602 along with all six of his sons by an ambitious general after which disastrous war with Persia broke out anew. They made repeated advances until finally being stopped by Emperor Heraclius who reigned from 610 to 641. However, a new threat arose which changed everything when Islam sprang up among the Arabs and a wave of Muslim conquests assailed the Byzantine Empire. Palestine and Syria fell in 636, Egypt in 640 and Armenia in 654. Muslim forces besieged Constantinople itself from 673 to 678 and from 717 to 718 but were held off thanks to the immense fortifications ringing the city which previous emperors had wisely invested in. Around Constantinople, however, Muslim conquests continued with Crete and Sicily falling in the 820’s.

St Olga enters the Church of Holy Wisdom
Constantinople remained the center of classical culture but these setbacks have also given rise to some confusion with many of the medical, scientific and other advances often attributed to the Arabs actually being the product of classical Greek and Roman scholars preserved by the Byzantines but seized by the Muslims during their conquests of East Roman centers of learning such as Alexandria, Egypt. Even in these troubled times, the Byzantine Empire also still had a civilizing, cultural influence in the east, just as the West Roman Empire had done on barbarians in their neighborhood. Christianity as today practiced in the Eastern Orthodox Churches was the most visible part of the East Roman culture spread by the Byzantine Empire throughout Eastern Europe. The South Slavs and Bulgarians were converted but the most significant was the conversion of Russia in the 800’s. St Olga, Princess and Regent of the Kievan-Rus converted to Christianity and was received into the church in Constantinople during the reign of Emperor Constantine VII. She took the faith back to her home and her grandson, Vladimir the Great, would make Christianity the official religion of the Russians which it remained up until the downfall of the Romanov dynasty in 1917.

The Byzantine Empire stands as rather persuasive proof that the fall of the Western Roman Empire was not inevitable as the Eastern Roman Empire carried on, seemed more than once on the brink of collapse but revived again. This occurred in the 800’s as the Byzantine Empire started to recover its old prosperity, fighting spirit and began to take back her conquered territories. The Muslim invaders were driven back, the Balkans was brought back under imperial rule and Constantinople was once again the center of great wealth and opportunity. Trade boomed and Italian merchants began making alliances with the Byzantine Empire because friendship and trade with them was so much more profitable than in the west. The peak was probably reached under Emperor Basil II, known as “the Bulgar-Slayer” who made a marriage alliance with the Russians, conquered Bulgaria, recovered Armenia and halted Muslim incursions. Art, religion, learning all seemed to have their best flowerings in Constantinople during this time. It was a sad occasion when Basil II passed away in 1025. Leadership problems followed, fights over the throne and this, of course, gave an opportunity for the enemies of the empire to advance. Some measure of stability was recovered with the rise of the Komnenos Dynasty but they had huge problems to deal with.

Godfrey de Bouillon pledges allegiance to Emp. Alexius
A major new problem, that ultimately would never go away, was the appearance of the Seljuk Turks riding in from central Asia. They quickly surpassed the Arabs as the primary Islamic threat to the Byzantine Empire. In 1071 at the pivotal Battle of Manzikert the Byzantine army was smashed by the Turks and Asia Minor completely laid open to them. Faced with overwhelming enemy forces, Emperor Alexius decided to look to the west and call on the Latin Christians for help. Pope Urban II answered by calling the First Crusade for the knights of western Europe to rush to the defense of Christendom against the Muslim invaders. The primary leader of the First Crusade was Godfrey de Bouillon and, while passing through Constantinople, Emperor Alexius had Godfrey and the leaders of the other crusader armies as they came, pledge allegiance to him and to reiterate than all lands they took back from the Muslims would belong to the Byzantine Empire. Not all of the Crusaders took kindly to this, which is understandable as they did the fighting and so expected to receive something in return for their efforts. The result was the establishment of Crusader states, primarily the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, who might nominally do obeisance to the Byzantine Emperor and who tended to adopt Byzantine style for their court life but who basically operated according to the western, feudal system as masters of their own lands with plenty of acrimony and accusations between the Latin Crusaders and their nominal Byzantine overseers.

Emp. John II & Irene of Hungary
The truth is that neither side was perfect in keeping their agreements but this period did see the most east-west cooperation in years. Emperor Alexius was succeeded, in 1118, by his son Emperor John II who married Princess Irene of Hungary. His reign was dominated with trying to repair the damage inflicted on the empire since the disaster at Manzikert. He dealt with the Serbs and Hungarians to the north, part of the settlement of which was his marriage to Irene who converted to the Orthodox Church and has since been recognized as a saint. He was known for his patronage of the church and for taking to the field himself to deal with the Turkish threat from the east, fighting and winning many battles and establishing fortified towns and outposts along the way to prevent future incursions. He succeeded in taking back the initiative in this war, reaching as far as Tarsus. The empire prospered during his reign and the population grew remarkably. However, when he determined to march into the Islamic occupied area of Syria he met only frustration as cooperation with the western Crusader forces failed to materialize. He also had problems with the Italians of Venice and all of these problems were to reemerge as far larger problems in the future.

Emperor Manuel I
For the time being, however, things seemed to be going much better. John II was succeeded by his youngest son Emperor Manuel I in 1143. He made an alliance with the Pope, oversaw the passage of the Second Crusade, joined them in an invasion of Egypt, managed to keep control of the Balkans and made Hungary and the Crusader states Byzantine protectorates. In that regard, he had succeeded where his father had failed, was referred to as “Manuel the Great” by the Greek population and even earned considerable praise from the Latin west as the “most blessed emperor of Constantinople”. This is, again, important to keep in mind because it shows that the Byzantine Empire was not just hanging by a thread or stumbling toward its inevitable doom after the western collapse. It had its periods of crisis but, under able leadership, was shown repeatedly to be capable of coming back and rising again to prominence. The reign of Emperor Manuel also shows that the introduction of the Crusaders into the equation was not something that was completely unmanageable and that the Latins and the Byzantines were capable of putting aside their differences and making common cause for the greater good of Christendom. Emperor Manuel took advantage of the rebellions against the Normans in Sicily to launch an invasion of southern Italy which initially had great success despite being too late to take part in a joint venture with German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa as he had planned. He made an alliance with Pope Adrian IV against the Normans and for a time saw hope of restoring the old Roman Empire, reuniting east and west. Unfortunately, this did not happen as the Emperor would not agree to accept papal supremacy over the eastern Christians nor would the Pope accept imperial political control over the west.

Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia
By the time of his death, the Byzantine Empire was prosperous, larger than before, more respected than before and one of the major world powers of the time. However, factions and conspiracies at court remained, enemies on the frontier looked for their chance and relations with Venice, the most important Byzantine ally in the west, had again broken down. It would take a strong monarch to carry on and, unfortunately, his son was a minor when raised to the throne, the regency was unpopular and soon court intrigue brought about the downfall of the boy and another period of political instability followed. The next seven emperors all met unhappy ends, six being murdered and one dying in captivity. Everything came to ruin with the Fourth Crusade of 1203, called by Pope Innocent III who wanted to invade Egypt, seeing it as the ‘soft underbelly’ of the Islamic domains. However, the Crusaders were diverted to retake a city on the Adriatic by the Republic of Venice as payment for ferrying them to Africa. Unfortunately, they never made it to Africa as they met with the deposed Byzantine Emperor Alexius IV Angelus who promised to pay for their ships, religiously reunite east and west and contribute large forces to the Crusade if they would restore him to his throne. They agreed and instead of going to Egypt attacked Constantinople.

This turned out to be a very brutal affair, partly because of the earlier “Massacre of the Latins”, longstanding east-west disputes and the discovery that none of the money or men the Crusaders had been promised existed. In 1204 Constantinople was ransacked on a large scale and quite devastated. Baldwin of Flanders was chosen to be Latin Emperor of the East by his fellow Crusaders, the east-west schism was declared over and the lands of Asia Minor were divided among various Greek rulers with the Crusaders becoming feudal lords of the more choice remnants of the Byzantine Empire. This was a very traumatic event and something that many if not most Eastern Orthodox Christians have yet to get over. The Latin Empire of Constantinople did not last too long with the Greeks, Turks and Bulgars all rising up against it on various fronts. It is, frankly, rather remarkable that it lasted for 57 years under such circumstances. The ideal of the Byzantine Empire as it had been was also not forgotten and in 1261 the last Imperial Dynasty came to power when Michael Palaeologus, a general and imperial relative in the employ of the Greek ruler at Nicaea, overthrew the Latin Empire and reclaimed Constantinople, banning all Latin and restoring the previous Byzantine traditions and ceremonies. Efforts by the Crusaders to restore their domains failed and the Byzantine Empire was once again a force to be reckoned with.

Emperor Constantine XI
Unfortunately, though Emperor Michael VIII, began to rebuild and repopulate Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire, having been broken up, was hard to put back together and would never be as strong as it had been before. Likewise, once the western enemy was gone, the eastern Christians soon began warring against each other again as well, all of which served the interests of the Turks quite nicely. In Asia Minor the Turks were on the advance while in the Balkans the Serbians were attacking and taking ground. The fact that the Christians did not stick together allowed the Turks to gain their own foothold in the Balkans and soon the city of Constantinople was an island in a Turkish sea. It was only thanks to the impressive, monumental, double fortifications around the city and her ingenious naval defenses that kept Constantinople out of enemy hands even though, eventually, the Byzantine Empire included very little beyond the walls of the city itself. There was also a sense of apathy that seemed to take hold of the populace as when the city was again besieged by massive Islamic armies led by Sultan Mehmed II, nicknamed “the Blood Drinker” which doesn’t make him sound like the nicest fellow, only 5,000 men, about 5% of the population could bestir themselves to take up arms in their own defense. This meant that nearly half of the defenders, about 3,000 of them, were western mercenaries, predominately Italian and Spanish with Giovanni Giustiniani (an Italian obviously) named top military commander by Emperor Constantine XI.

Emperor Constantine XI did the best he could under the most hopeless of circumstances. When the Turkish artillery finally breached the walls on May 29, 1453 and the end was eminent, he hurled himself into the enemy ranks and was never seen again, giving rise to a popular legend that he was rescued by an angel, turned to stone and hidden away to be brought back to life later and retake the city for Christendom. It is a story reminiscent of those of King Arthur in England or Frederick Barbarossa in Germany and shows just how much of an impact his heroic sacrifice had on his people. Despite repeated calls for a crusade to retake the city by a number of popes, this proved to be the end of the Byzantine Empire. The Turks turned the Hagia Sophia into a mosque and, initially, made the city the capital of their Ottoman Empire. Eventually, the Ottoman Empire would fall as well but the Turks still maintain control of Asia Minor, the “Golden Horn” and the city of Constantine. Today this is so taken for granted that few even think about it.

14th Century Byzantine flag
The Eastern Roman Empire, however, is something everyone should think about, in the west as well as the east. It certainly had many problems and was notorious for its conspiracies and palace intrigues, however, while the Western Roman Empire fell in 476, the Eastern Roman Empire survived until 1453 and that is something that cannot be shrugged off or dismissed out of hand. For Eastern Europe, the Byzantine Empire was the source of faith, culture and, originally at least, royal legitimacy. For the west, it was the bulwark on the frontier of Christendom that kept very powerful and highly organized enemies from ravaging the continent. Does anyone think that the Persians would not have continued on into Greece as their ancient forefathers had done if the Byzantine Empire had not stopped them? The initial Arab Islamic conquests that swept across north Africa could have easily reached Germany, even Britain or Scandinavia if the Byzantines had not stood in the way. The Turks ultimately gained control of much of the Balkans in their conquests but consider how much more they could have gained without Constantinople blocking their path.

Constantinople as an imperial capital
Western Civilization would likely not exist without the Byzantine Empire and not only because it stood as a barrier against invasion. The Christian religion of the empire, the Roman laws, the Greek culture that came together there served as a gateway from the classical world to the modern world. The Eastern Orthodox Churches and those of the Byzantine-rite of the Catholic Church come down to us from the empire, its learning and the learning it preserved was rediscovered during the Renaissance leading to many advances and its famous artistic style was copied early on and into the Italian Renaissance with numerous churches in Ravenna, Italy and St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice as obvious examples. Byzantine art and architecture also had a tremendous impact on Russia which can still be seen today. The Byzantine Empire was one half and the longer lived half of the Roman Empire which was the foundation of European civilization as we know it. As the kingdoms of France, Spain or Germany looked to Rome, so too did those of Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Russia look to Constantinople. We cannot allow it to be forgotten.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...