Posts Tagged ‘germany


European History Pt. 44 — The Tide Turns Against Napoleon

Last time, we saw Napoleon at his high point. His brothers were king in various part of Europe and he himself was undisputed land power in Europe. He was at peace with Russia and found allies in trying to starve Great Britain. This time, we see how it all begins to unravel.

Napoleon tried to create an ideology to unify the nations of Europe against Great Britain. He called Great Britain “a nation of shopkeepers” who wanted to keep Europe’s growing wealth for themselves (the parallels to anti semitism in WWII is pretty interesting). Both sides resorted to trade warfare. Napoleon forbid British goods and England blockaded most of Europe. England was called “the modern carthage,” a ruthless trade cartel. Both France and Britain competed for trade.

NOTE: the war of 1812 in American history came about largely because the U.S. was one of the few neutral countries that could pick between these two blocs of power.

But the continental system was a failure. Not because the continent was starved out. There was plenty of food and weapons produced in Europe proper, so the blockade did not succeed that way. Also, boycotting French goods BOOSTED the business powers on the continent who now did not have to compete with them.

Rather, the problems came from the fact that there was not free trade in the continent. France kept tariffs strongest at its national borders and so its industry was protected at the expense of other countries.

Also, land transport was too slow and inefficient to keep the goods (which there was enough of) going to the right places at the right times. If Napoleonic Europe had happened 40 years later (when railroads existed) — the continental system MIGHT HAVE SUCCEEDED. 

Britain meanwhile was not damaged by the continental system because they had their overseas connections and were able to keep their traders flourishing.

Resistance to the French System

After placing the continental system in economic context, the book turns to a little intellectual history, which I love.

The book discusses nationalism and how it grew and was nurtured by Napoleon’s insistence on a kind of French internationalism. People explored their local traditions and found new ways to argue in favor of their autonomy. They turned to liberalism and conservatism in various ways to make this case. The book has this powerful quote: “Both conservatism and liberalism rose up against Napoleon, destroyed him, outlasted him, and shaped the history of the following generations.” 

For instance, in Spain, anti Napoleonism was conservative, aiming to restore the Bourbon monarchy and the church. England by contrast of course was concerned with stamping “Boney” out completely.

The most important place though was Germany. We’ve learned so much of Germany, how it had always played second fiddle to France intellectually speaking. Prussia was a military state and was a great power on that fact alone, but now there was a great flourishing in German thinking and art. This was the time of Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Herder, Schiller, Goethe, and Beethoven — some of the most interesting minds of all time. Germany at this time was wrestling with its national identity after roughly 300 years of being manipulated and isolated by various empires.

Herder is the classic expression of these impulses, but because I’ve never read him, I won’t summarize other than to say he seemed to challenge the enlightenment view of universal reason developing everywhere at different paces.  He seemed to argue that cultures were just different, end of story, and that this difference was a source of pride for its citizens. Culture, was the watchword of this philosophy. Anti-semitism developed at this time as a perversion of the anti-internationalism that was trickling through Germany. Looking back at how this spirit developed, its clear that it had many laudatory goals and impulses (it was for instance, democratic because it emphasized the spirit of the Volk), but it was also lent itself to a kind of paranoid and neurotic obsession with national purity, an overreaction to years of manipulation and exploitation.

Prussia especially internalized these lessons. They had lost their territory in one sweeping blow (the loss to Napoleon) and were casting about for a philosophy to bring about a new Prussia. They settled on a kind of patriotic militarism (the kind that had been on display in the American Revolution. Hessian mercenaries who saw American patriotism reported back to Germany).


European History Pt. 7 — Thirty Years’ War (background)

Yes, the apostrophe is after the “s” in “years.”

We’ve looked at some of the setup to the 30 years war (here), and though the book I’m reading A History of the Modern World (the beginning of this history series is here) does a really great job with the factors leading up to it, it can only do so much. There’s just so much history, animosity, and changes that lead to one of the defining conflicts of modern European history — The Thirty Years’ War.

This war is so complex that I’m going to tackle it in stages. Today I’m just doing background.

The background is that the German protestants became kind of ignorant and insular after their history-altering opposition to the Catholic church. There were more witchcraft burnings in Germany that in other places, which is one clue to the superstition that still gripped the area. German scholars weren’t reading internationally (is this because Luther translated the bible into German and so encouraged a kind of linguistic parochialism?)

Economically, trade had moved away from say, the Rhine, and toward the Atlantic. Furthermore, the Dutch controlled the mouth of the Rhine to serve their own interests, altering the commerce downstream.

In any case, Germany would be the site of a great conflagration.

The spark came in 1608 when the Elector Palatine (EP) became Calvinist. This is crucial because the EP is one of the people who elects the Holy Roman Emperor. Naturally, the protestants wanted to defend this gain in electoral power, and so the Dutch and the English, along with the ever-duplicitous French, formed a union in support. The Catholics, not to be outdone, formed a German Catholic union with the states of Bavaria. The Austrian Habsburgs (remember the Habsburg split into a Spanish and an Austrian/German line after Charles V retired to a monastery in 1556). Wanted German to be Catholic and so they joined that side. France opposed the Habsburg power and so defended protestantism as a way to unsettle the Habsburgs. Spain wanted to attack the Netherlands again and so allied themselves with the Catholic powers.

Complexity results from the fact that many conflicts were fought at once in the 30 years’ war. The war was an international “proxy” conflict of Catholicism and Protestantism, but it was also a civil war fought over centralization with the German princely states. There were also opportunists of all types who joined at one point or another.

My book conveniently divides the war into 4 phases. I’ll go into these next time.


European History pt. 1 — Luther and Calvin

This summer, I’m going to be going through my old European history textbook. It was advanced for me in high school, and now it’s a pretty easy read, but it’s a good summary of the major developments of European history. The book is A History of the Modern World by RR Palmer, Joel Colton, and Lloyd Kramer. Each day, I am going to try and do 10 pages from this book, and write a short summary to cement my understanding.

I start at the protestant reformation.

pages 77-87

Time frame

1517 is when Luther posts the 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg. 1560 is when catholic and protestant battle lines were more or less stably drawn, and it was only until the end of the 30 years war in 1648 that the two groups gave up their internecine religious struggles for those of “pure” politics.

Things to Note

From my reading, the protestant reformation was a startlingly conservative and individualistic movement. The movement got traction because the middle class were becoming more secular (just ever so slightly at this time), the poor were sick of the church’s corruption (Babylonian captivity had just ended in 1378), and the powerful wanted more power. Surprise surprise.

When the revolution began, German princes had a lot to gain by casting out Catholicism and repossessing their lands for their own enrichment. Luther himself had to ally himself more and more closely with princely powers when peasants used his religious revolution to further social goals like village rights. The Schmalkaldic league — a league of princes — successfully warred against the church and won a great victory, sealed by the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. This gave rulers the right to determine the religion in their territory. This was a kind of a political autonomy or political right.

Two other crucial things

1. the philosophy of Luther was an internal one. Some of the sacraments were done away with, and the physical, ritualism of Catholicism was replaced by “justification  by faith” which was an attitude or state of mind (the first instance of the modern attitude?). Notice how this was congenial to political rulers since the dictates of Protestantism did not require anything that could contradict the interests of a secular state. Catholicism however, with its worldly embodiment in the institution  of the church was much more threatening.

2. France begins what will be its historical obsession with dividing Germany by embracing Protestantism (and more). French was Catholic but was happy to support the P revolution for ITS political goals — revolution kept the German princes fragmented. I think it’s interesting to recognize that the  aggressive Germany of the turn of the century and the Nazis was partly a national psychic response to CENTURIES of manipulation by the French. Not saying this absolves Germany of its actions, but see how it all fits together. The French used Germany as its political toilet for a while. That’s bound to piss people off.


Calivinism was in many ways more radical than Lutheranism. In fact, it’s interesting to compare the origins of Calvinism with modern day fundamental Islam. Regulation of ordinary life by religion was complete. Calvinists thought that they had an obligation to Christianize the state. Calvinism also more strongly rejected transubstantiation (whereas P introduced “consubstantiation”)


Supremacy Act passed  by parliament under Henry VIII, making him head of the English clergy. He wanted to be head of a British Catholic church, but he soon had to make more protestant adjustments.


Phelps v. Snyder and a ‘sex boat’ prank

There is a case at the supreme court right now, Phelps v. Snyder in which the family of deceased marine lance corporal Matthew Snyder is suing Reverend Fred Phelps, leader of Westboro Baptist Church (I wrote about the development of this case here). In the lawsuit, Matt Snyder’s father is seeking damages from Phelps and members of his church for picketing the funeral of his son, and gleefully celebrating American casualties as God’s justice for America’s tolerance of homosexuals.

(*side note: how is this hateful position even factually accurate? Homosexuals do not have same rights as heterosexuals, so maybe the idea is that as we refrain from burning their house, we count as tolerating them? The whole thing is really too insane to grace with much more commentary.)

This case is extremely aggravating to me because I fear that Phelps and his gang are legally correct though obviously morally blind. The district court awarded damages to the Snyder family but the appeals court reversed the 11 million dollar verdict on free speech grounds. Sure enough, it seems that Phelps’ speech is protected by the first amendment, disgusting as it is. The protesters are not doing anything importantly different than Nazis and KKK members who have had no trouble winning first amendment protection for their hateful activities.

You wonder though, what is the grounds for these examples of toleration>  It becomes very hard to resist being very angry: why do the right, good, and tolerant people have to put up with the hateful speech of these lunatics? Sure, all voices should be heard, but why does it always feel like free speech is shielding people who have no right to be talking. The common response is that my previous sentence, which speaks in terms of who and who does not have a right to talk, is itself a risk any dangerous pronouncement.

The idea is simple. In a democracy or any highly organized society, speech must be protected without asking any questions, because once you start asking questions, you open the door to abuse and majority tyranny. The majority finds many things offensive, and allowing it to question speech will always result in the erosion of political discourse of all flavors.

And this is right I guess, but it’s entirely dependent on the exigencies of a slow and decrepit national discourse. I mean, logically, the argument is just fallacious  or at least appeals to laziness: we can’t restrict anything anyone says because then we won’t know where to stop and we’ll end up hurting political dynamism that a democracy requires. But really? Do we not know where to stop? How about this rule: no naziism and no white supremacy. They don’t get free speech protections.

Then there are questions like “how do you know what counts as white supremacy and naziism,” and these are real questions I guess, but look at Germany, which bans many free speech acts related to Naziism. Holocaust denying is illegal and so is displaying Nazi paraphernalia. I haven’t read up on this law, but Germany has not lapsed into dictatorship and in fact their democracy seems to be doing fine.

So maybe the courts should just slap reverend Phelps with a big ole settlement and shut his whole church down. Boy that would make me happy, but I don’t think it’s the best course of action, and the reason is that a democratic society cannot exist without citizens who are willing to make sacrifices. People who join the military sacrifice to defend us. People who into public service sacrifice to run our government. Even ordinary citizens, under most views of democracy, must compromise and accept something less in order to keep the government moving and so that all parties get something.

The moral ideal is not meant to be winner take all, in which two wolves out vote a lamb on what should be for dinner. Rather, democracy’s moral ideal stems from the dispersion of power and sharing a balance of ideological orientation.

By asking to silence the KKK and reverend Phelps, we are trying to feel better (and as I said, it would feel great to know this reverend never got to keep another dime he made because he was paying it out to this family) by seeking vengeance, but the cost of a good government and healthy polity is taking the high road and forswearing vengeance as another cost of having a strong country. We have to simply look away from Phelps and his clan and try to keep the limelight off them, and this I think, is what the supreme court will rule.

The connection all this has to the sex boat scandal is that we have to swear off satisfaction of a primal desire to see stupid people humiliated. In this scandal, some reporter, god knows why, thought he would lure a CNN reporter on to a boat tricked out for sexy time, to ’embarrass her.’ Doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it seems that has run something like four articles just mocking this guy and somehow blaming fox news.

Something I repeat on this website a million times is that the politics of gotcha is ineffective and harmful. CNN, Fox, liberals and conservatives alike get angry about things, and its hard not to see why when you see people on both sides of the political divide saying such stupid things. People want nothing more than to humiliate the ‘other side’ and in fact our press is fast becoming saturated with such stories, depicting tea partyers, environmentalists, and conservatives and liberals of all stripes making fools of themselves. When will we learn that it is in the nature of humankind to sustain legions of idiots, but that this fact IN NO WAY changes what we must do as defenders of democracy and liberalism, which is to courageously, day in and day out, IGNORE those who spew garbage and to FOCUS on those who preach ideas.

While and no doubt Huffington Post are criticizing this obviously immature and deranged conservative reporter, our democracy is facing a vexing problem of how to limit the power of those who REALLY DO profess hatred and who REALLY DO want to poison our entire political culture. These are serious questions: how do we value our political participation (do we value it at all anymore) and should we legislate on the side of decency as Germany as done? The question is not who’s up and who’s down on the scoreboard of partisan silliness, but one about a man whose son died protecting this country, and what he died to protect.