History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

Category: Historians

Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema – History in Paintings

In the Tepidarium, by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema
In the Tepidarium, by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema

World famous in his lifetime, forgotten after death, and rediscovered since the 1960s, Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema’s ( 8 January 1836 – 25 June 1912) depictions of Classical Antiquity have been called everything from kitsch to genius. Female beauty was his passion …

Following a family tradition, he was destined to become a lawyer – fortunately for the world of art, the plan tanked for good when he, aged sixteen, entered the Royal Academy of Antwerp in Belgium to study early Dutch and Flemish art. What happened then one can read on Wiki and many other websites, and we forgo the story and show the works …

The Woman of Amphissa
The Woman of Amphissa
The Baths of Caracalla
The Baths of Caracalla

He became known especially with scenes of daily life – quite distict from the hero-worshipping of mainstream classical painters.

A Favourite Custom
A Favourite Custom
View From The Villa Jovis by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
View From The Villa Jovis by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
At Aphrodite's Cradle
At Aphrodite’s Cradle
Watching and Waiting
The Colosseum
A reading by Homer - Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema
A reading by Homer – Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema
Comparison' by_Lawrence Alma Tadema  -Cincinnati Art Museum
“Comparison” by Lawrence Alma Tadema – Cincinnati Art Museum
Spring (Detail)


Alma-Tedema Foundation


(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)

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On Writing History – The Noble Quest

Clio - The Muse of History in Jan Vermeer's famous allegory
Clio – The Muse of History in Jan Vermeer’s famous allegory

“History is one of the indispensable studies. No person can be educated or civilized who does not make a study of history, and a habit of reading history. This is because it stands alongside literature and the arts as one of the richest and best sources of understanding human experience and the human condition, and it equips us to understand ourselves, to organize our lives and societies, and to meet the future as best we may. As the saying derived from Thucydides has it, history is philosophy teaching by examples.” A. C. Grayling

The statement seems quaint to the post-literate and post-factual generation of today. Education in the classical sense is labelled non-productive and hence unnecessary – we may find our way to disaster alone, won’t we? Why should it matter what happened before our all-important present existence?

History is important. In centuries past this statement would have seemed self-evident. Ancient cultures devoted much time and effort to teaching their children family history. It was thought that the past helps a child understand who he is. Modern society, however, has turned its back on the past. We live in a time of rapid change, a time of progress. We prefer to define ourselves in terms of where we are going, not where we come from. Our ancestors hold no importance for us. They lived in times so different from our own that they are incapable of shedding light on our experience. Man is so much smarter now than he was even ten years ago that anything from the past is outdated and irrelevant to us. Therefore, the past, even the relatively recent past, is, in the minds of most of us, enshrouded by mists and only very vaguely perceived. Our ignorance of the past is not the result of a lack of information, but of indifference. We do not believe that history matters. But history does matter. It has been said that he who controls the past controls the future. Our view of history shapes the way we view the present, and therefore it dictates what answers we offer for existing problems. David Crabtree The Importance of History

Never has the statement that who controls the past controls the future been more blindingly obvious that in our time of the Internet, Wikipedia and omnipresent surveillance. One of the most important objectives of the total news and history control executed by China is the suppression of the knowledge of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests and the subsequent massacre. The Chinese government is mortally afraid of the emancipation of the Chinese people. Its propaganda projects an image of political unity which is far from true – the problem is that most western people have little idea of it.

I happened to have a Chinese girlfriend in the 1980s – she was the owner of two restaurants – one in my birth town and a bigger one in the next major city. I accompanied her on many business trips and received a thorough education in inner-Chinese matters.

She showed me how there is not one communist party – there is one in every province, every town, every village – fiercely competitive – as there are not one Chinese people – obvious enough if we recall that before the implementation of the Mandarin language and script as lingua franca every province had its own lingo and people in private conversations still prefer their local dialects – just for safety. She described how she could tell only from the way the omnipresent dragons in the restaurants faced she could tell whether the owner was a party member or not, and what wing he favoured, or how the inclusion or exclusion of a dish on the menu could point out political expressions.

Suppression of history is a standard method of political control and the incidents are omnipresent. Hence, those that write and teach us history are on a truly noble quest and deserve our support. The better their discourse, the more we profit.

Hence, I decided to compose this short introduction to the main considerations and instruments the aspiring writer of history in the English language (or, rather, any writer) should be familiar with – ideally, have on his mind and desk at all times.

First: Know what you want. Are you planning a monograph, an excerpt about a partial aspect of a historic theme, an essay which points out your view of a question, a Wiki-Type entry that should, as short as possible and as short as necessary give an overview of a specific theme, or a full-fledged book on a period, personality or phenomenon? There is no precise formula on what to write and what not; this is your artistic challenge – the “Tour d’Horizon” you must define for yourself.

Second: Know Thyself! We are individuals with prejudices, likes and dislikes, and easily fall prey to let our preconceptions cloud our judgment – especially if the forces and/or actors we investigate act from motives we cannot clearly understand, or, even, may seem incomprehensible.

The most obvious case in point here is religion, which despite its reliance on theses inaccessible to falsification had, and has, often most dire consequences on the fate of man, even if we literally – from our modern point of view – fail to understand the relevance of many a hotly contested issue – e.g. Arianism vs. Athanasianism – wouldn’t they have found out the truth – so it existed – after their death anyway?

In general, is fruitless for the aspiring historian to take sides in religious , philosophical or ideological issues, because its near impossible not to become a propagandist for the chosen side or idea, which defeats the intention.

Man is a social animal, a collaborative species, and, for better or worse, owns an intellect able to conjure ideas – their implementation and outcome is what we report about.

A few simple precautions, I have realized, are sometimes overlooked in basic education. One thing is the use of maps. Let us take, for example, a Wikipedia map on the Rashidun and Umayyad expansion (Click for extended view):

Quite impressive, is it? Yet, the green colour in this map does not designate modern area states with more or less uniform nationalities, ethnicities, power projection and complex economies – such states did not exist in this part of the world at that time (and hardly anywhere else). What we see is a huge sea of a desert with a ring of a few miles of population centres around the coasts and a few trade towns and fortified places, just specks in a vast expanse of sand and rock. A few trade routes, poor farmers and villagers, who were not citizens of anything (except, if they followed the religious prescriptions, being parts of the Umma), but there existed no borders, no nationality, no loyalty but to the local strongman and his backers in the capital: in this case, a Caliph, who may well never heard of the place you live in.

Why not simply use Wikipedia a basis, many would ask? This is indeed useful, but there are indeed a few drawbacks for the inexperienced. One is that without a personal basis of general knowledge, the prospective author cannot truly judge whether what the Wiki article says is holy writ or not. There are many issues which are hotly discussed – but Wiki always feels it must present a “middle” point of view, which, however, may be tainted because the Wiki editors themselves, who are as fallible as the next pope, cannot get everything “right” – naturally – because the concept of “truth” or “rightness” in our field is a very questionable matter.

The second factor in favour of the old-fashioned “encyclopedia” type of books, of which I will recommend some below, is that we find ourselves leafing through them, scrolling and browsing, which we seldom do on Wiki. While I browse through Wiki an hour or more every day using the “Random Article” button, I am aware that not everybody has the time or inclination to do so. Naturally, the useful habit again depends somewhat on the extent of your basic knowledge of worldly, historical, geographical and intellectual affairs – for the greater they are, the more sense you can make of the possibly spurious information you are confronted with by simply browsing through.

Since the writing of history demands different qualities than the description of fictitious events, we need to build on a foundation of our own life experience and the underlying facts of the subject – or at least reasonable likelihoods.

In your romance, action or detective story you may invent persons or localities, give them the characteristics you feel necessary for the plot, kill them when they served their function or let them suffer every fate you see fit. Not so in our field.

History - by Frederick Dielman (1896)
History – by Frederick Dielman (1896)

In addition, history is subject to both official and unofficial peer review – for you will find out in a hurry that if your presentation, deductions and conclusions are debatable, you will realize, and be told, that you have may engaged, willingly or not, in superfluity or propaganda – which is an entirely different field.

So is speculation. On Facebook, for example, there are “History” groups who specialize in this exercise – military history mainly, in which there occurs a lot of discussions what would have happened if general X had ordered army Y to move to Z and so forth. Quite interesting at times – but somewhat off the mark unless it serves the inquiry why the general made the decision the specified way and not any other. The “What if?” scenario can be fascinating, but we must recall it is not history.

Perhaps the most important ability of a historian is to be a good detective. Always ask yourself – whether reading an original source or a secondary work – what was the motivation of the author? Did he or she write from a personal, that is, utilitarian point of view – does he or she want to sell you something – does he or she write in someone’s employ – are there any third-party interests? Ask yourself what a detective asks – Cui bono – To whom is it a benefit?

In the field of history, one must be aware of a few more specific caveats:

I. Maps: Many of the maps that you find in your history atlas paint – in vivid colours – what is understood in modern times as a nation – i.e. a more or less homogenous or uniform form of state. Please keep in mind that the modern notion of the state is … modern – a different animal than what it used to be. Let us view an example of a map of Europe in the 14th Century (from Brown University) and think of what we could say about the circumstances of life of three people living in the places we marked (1), (2) and (3):

Europe in the 14th Century

Person (1) lives in the “Holy Roman Empire”, which, in reality, did not exist as a unified state. He (or she) lives in its southwestern part, what is today the part of Germany called “Baden-Württemberg”, one of the sixteen German Federal States. Who is his superior, who has a claim on his allegiance? The Kaiser? Now let us look at a contemporary map, which shows us in an instant that things might get complicated:

This view does not help us much, so we need a close up:
No less than 22 noble houses plus more than 40 barons, counts and religious potentates owned parts of the country … (In)famous among the smaller ones, for example, the Abbey of Baindt in Swabia: it consisted of a parcel of land less than five hundred acres in size, was inhabited by twenty-nine nuns and their retainers, and governed by a princess-abbess. Yet the mini-state was a political entity as sovereign as, say, the Kingdom of Poland or Louis XIV’s France… In 1376, Baindt was granted imperial immediacy, which gave it the status of an Imperial abbey, although it remained subordinate to the abbot of Salem Abbey in spiritual matters. The abbess was also granted the privilege of lower justice over the then approximately 200 subjects living in Baindt’s small territory. That privilege was confirmed during the first half of the 18th century. As an Imperial Estate, the abbess had seat and voice in the Imperial Diet as a member of the Swabian bench of prelates.
Baindt Abbey

In other words, whether the person (1) lived a few kilometres east, west, north or south, he might owe allegiance and live under the rule of a different liege-lord, perhaps a Hohenzollern (light blue), the Duke of Baden-Baden (orange) or a Württemberger (yellow). He might belong to a small church holding or a local equestrian or baronet. Every war, or a simple business deal or even a noble marriage might change everything in his life, and we ought to be very careful not to see him as a “citizen” of the empire – for it did not have true statehood in the modern sense.

What can we say about person (2)? We would need to know the exact place and the exact date, for if we review the disambiguation of Serbia as a political entity in Wikipedia alone, we get:

In the case of person (3), somewhere in Lithuania, we have the choice of the following political entities – Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1236–1795), Kingdom of Lithuania (1251–63) and Duchy of Lithuania (13th century – 1413), which existed more or less simultaneously respectively overlapping.

In all these three cases, we may assume that the sole personification of the ruler was the annual appearance of the tax collector – seldom did the statelike structures have defined, fixed or fortified borders, or an effective bureaucracy, and we must not assume there was a central political organisation. This was the age of feudalism, which in itself came to pass precisely with the collapse of the tax structure of the Roman Empire and the subsequent impossibility of maintaining a standing army. Big coloured expanses on maps did not mean what they do today.

See: The End of the Legions

II. Peoples as Nations: It is a mistake to adopt the modern concept of a nation-state to premodern times. In some countries, the ethnogenesis of the dominant population was accelerated by natural borders, but not in all, and Germany is a well-known example. Please read in this context:

The Breakup of the West

German Ethnogenesis Part I (1100 – 1300)

As this ethnic map of 1896 shows, there was little overlap of ethnical and geographical borders.

Peoples did not decide to fight or invade other peoples – rulers did.

III. Related to II., and in particular since 1914 respectively 1945, when issues like “War Guilt” and/or the odium of the “War of Aggression” have found an entry in historical discussions – keep in mind:

Unlike the precipitate causes of the Second World War, the antecedents of the First and their interpretation remains the
topic of a lively historic discussion. But before we dare to enter the abyss, we must remind ourselves of four instances in
which the pre-1914 world was much different from today, and we must keep these conditions in mind when we review
what happened.

I. To wage war was considered the natural privilege of a state, a part of its governmental discretion. Smaller wars before the 1870s, say, the Prusso-Danish War of 1864, had essentially been the last “cabinet wars”, undertaken with limited resources to achieve specific political objectives. But the more technical and economic development allowed increases in army size and firepower, the more such changes aggravated the indeterminable risks – “the fog of war”, as Clausewitz famously called it – and this uncertainty ensured that after 1871 a relatively long period of peace graced much of the European continent. Even men who could reasonably be accused of having advocated war in July 1914 did so without an idea of the sheer magnitude of the catastrophe they invoked. The odium that two world wars were to inflict on the idea of war itself, it’s now increasingly doubtful legitimacy, did not exist in 1914.

II. Just as war was perceived as a simple, prosaic option of a government, the leadership of its armed forces was expected to be prepared for it. Every nation had copied the system of the Prussian and later German General Staff, and all these staffs were called upon to develop plans for every possible contingency; indeed, not to plan for a likely scenario would be tantamount to treason.

III. Due to false lessons drawn after the Crimean War of 1856 by generals worldwide, the dogma prevailing at European military academies in the years prior to 1914 embraced the superiority of attack; the French general staff called it “offensive à outrance”, and it became the principle underlying its catastrophic Plan XVII. In addition, the inbred conservatism of cavalry officers – noble to a man – led to the establishment of additional cavalry units in all armies right up to the eve of the war, which had two significant drawbacks: not only took cavalry an exceptional and inevitable drain on the chronically overburdened supply system, for one cavalry division of 4,000 men and twelve guns needed as many daily supply trains (forty) as an infantry division of 16,000 men and fifty-four guns, (1) but the invention of the machine-gun had punched the death ticket for cavalry attacks, who came to resemble mass suicide. Yet this was, of course, not realized until the occurrence of the first battles. But the reliance on attack would also guarantee, it was surmised, that the decisive battle and its unavoidable destruction would take place on the enemy’s soil, and, with luck, might disable some of his war industry – as it happened when Germany occupied the ten north-eastern French departments for much of 1914 to 1918 and thus took out approximately 70% of the pre-war French iron industry.

IV. The second half of the nineteenth century was the age of thriving imperialism, and all great powers attempted to partake in or project “world power”. Colonization was, in Rudyard Kipling’s words, the “white man’s burden”.

The little drummer boy, p. 291 – 291

And now to the sine-qua-non list of technical issues:

The following list enumerates the standard reference books every history writer needs in print form – many similar compilations are to be found for free on the internet and may function as replacements. However, most of the works mentioned are to be found easily at very little cost (I acquired mine usually under $5) at used book shops and their acquisition is strongly suggested. Here’s a link to a comparison of the best online shops for used books.

In order of importance:

I. ROGET’s INTERNATIONAL THESAURUS 7th Edition or newer, Collins Reference (HarperCollins Publishers) ISBN 978-0-06-171523-5 (thumb-indexed)


II. OXFORD DICTIONARY OF QUOTATIONS 7th Edition or newer, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-9237717-3,

History comes alive in winged words …

III. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE – COMPLETE WORKS – The Royal Shakespeare Company, The Modern Library, New York (Random House modernlibrary.com), ISBN 978-0-679-64295-4,

The cradle of Modern English …

IV. DICTIONARY OF FOREIGN WORDS AND PHRASES 2nd Edition or newer, Oxford University Press, Andrew Delahunty (Ed.), ISBN 978-0-19-954368-7,

A proper historian must be a proper translator …

V. LATIN CONCISE DICTIONARY – HarperResource, ISBN 0-06-053690-X,

… with Supplements on Roman History and Culture …

VI. OXFORD DICTIONARY OF ALLUSIONS, Second Edition or newer, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-860919-3,

Who the heck was Jehoshabeath?

VII. THE READER’S COMPANION TO WORLD LITERATURE, Second Edition or newer, Signet Classics, ISBN 978-0-451-52841-4,

Basic info about the masterpieces of writing in one small collection …

VIII. THE AMERICAN HERITAGE ABBREVIATIONS DICTIONARY, Third Edition or newer, Houghton Mifflin Company, ISBN 0-618-62123-7,

Especially useful for scientific texts with abbreviations galore …

The Writer's Desk - Unicorns Optional
The Writer’s Desk – Unicorns Optional



(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)

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Procopius – The Secret History

Ancient Constantinople, by Giacomo Franco

Related Post: The Age of Justinian (The Gothic Wars, Theodora, The End of the Legions, The Rise of the Franks)

Mosaic - Acsibed to show Procopius of Caesarea
Mosaic – Ascribed to show Procopius of Caesarea

The PDF – File linked to this post represents the Gutenberg edition of the “Secret History” of Procopius, in the version of THE ATHENIAN SOCIETY of MDCCCXCVI, including an introduction and footnotes, edited and corrected to modern English spelling by John Vincent Palatine.

From Wikisource: Procopius – History of the Wars

Related Post: The Age of Justinian (The Gothic Wars, Theodora, The End of the Legions, The Rise of the Franks)

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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Empire – Edward Gibbon and Thomas Cole

Thomas Cole - The Dream of the Architect
Thomas Cole – The Dream of the Architect
Portrait of Edward Gibbon (1737-94) c.1779 (oil on canvas) by Reynolds, Sir Joshua (1723-92)
Portrait of Edward Gibbon (1737-94) c.1779
Thomas Cole

Paintings by Thomas Cole – The Course of Empire; et aliae


Few historians indeed have been the subject of ongoing discussion as Edward Gibbon continues to be.

The subject of the work that was to earn him eternal fame – The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – was by itself uncontroversial enough – hundreds of volumes had been written about the decay of Rome (fewer of that of Constantinople …) but the majority of them were deriving from modern, that is, Christian times.

The masters of antiquity had written without the benefit of a Christian education or indoctrination, and therefore the powers-to-be of the historical establishment of 18th Century England considered them of secondary importance – unaware of the glorious gospel the Lord of the Universe had brought to the progeny of Adam and uninformed of the noble achievements of British royalty.

While the Renaissance had pretty much gnawed away most middle-age certitudes of biblical teaching through Gutenberg’s invention and Luther’s and Calvin’s arguments, this was still a time in which the moral authority of the Anglican respectively Catholic Church went largely unquestioned.

Thomas Cole: The Course of Empire – The Savage State (1836)

Thus, it came to quite a shock when the 1776 publication of Volume I of the “History” and even more Volume II and III in 1781 clearly and unequivocally identified a Semitic Abrahamic religion, Christianity, as the third culprit in the decay of the great Empire. The main factor was, in Gibbon’s analysis, barbarian invasions, which, however, succeeded mainly because of a gradual loss of “civic virtue” among the citizens (by ‘civic virtue’, Gibbon referred to support of the common people for the government, which he saw presently as the strength of Great Britain):

Thomas Cole: The Course of Empire – The Arcadian or Pastoral State (1836)

The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and, instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long. The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigour of the military government was relaxed, and finally dissolved, by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians.” [The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 38 “General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West“]

Thomas Cole  - The Consummation of the Empire
Thomas Cole – The Consummation of the Empire

This alone many contemporaries might have swallowed, but the last quarto of Volume I (Chapters XV and XVI) contained a very controversial passage, which brought Gibbon the epithet of “paganist”:

As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction, or at least the abuse of Christianity, had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. Faith, zeal, curiosity, and more earthly passions of malice and ambition, kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody and always implacable; the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country. Yet party-spirit, however pernicious or absurd, is a principle of union as well as of dissension. The bishops, from eighteen hundred pulpits, inculcated the duty of passive obedience to a lawful and orthodox sovereign; their frequent assemblies and perpetual correspondence maintained the communion of distant churches; and the benevolent temper of the Gospel was strengthened, though confirmed, by the spiritual alliance of the Catholics. The sacred indolence of the monks was devoutly embraced by a servile and effeminate age; but if superstition had not afforded a decent retreat, the same vices would have tempted the unworthy Romans to desert, from baser motives, the standard of the republic. Religious precepts are easily obeyed which indulge and sanctify the natural inclinations of their votaries; but the pure and genuine influence of Christianity may be traced in its beneficial, though imperfect, effects on the barbarian proselytes of the North. If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors.

That is to say that, basically, that the Christian religion had corrupted and emasculated the people of the empire – yet, “Thank God”, one is tempted to comment – had also curtailed the rampancy of the barbarians who at length accepted the gospel as their own.

Thomas Cole  - Destruction of the Empire
Thomas Cole – Destruction of the Empire

Worse it might look to the devout follower of Christ, that Gibbon favourably compared the tolerance of pagan societies and the wisdom of their rulers (i.e. Roman emperors before AD 300 as well) with the inflexibility of Christian (or Muslim, for that matter) doctrine and their historic predilection to internecine aggression (which clearly was critique on a few British kings as well, say Edward VIII):

The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.

Another most unsavoury blow to the holiness and spirituality of the Church was found in the scandalous fact that Gibbon dared to judge the multitudinous reports on Christian martyrdom as self-serving fabrications – deriving from secondary sources which could not stand independent verification. That is – he said – they might simply be fictitious – Christian propaganda.

Worse, for that part of Christian persecution which could reasonably be assumed to have some actual basis in history, Gibbon pointed out that it was not based on religious or spiritual issues, but on the Romans’ practice of state religion – the Roman state did not care what one believed – and the importance that was placed on the rather perfunctory sacrifices the ordinary citizen was required to perform.

The Caesarian sacrifice was not a matter of religion or belief – it was the demonstration of loyalty to the empire – and who refused was not an unbeliever – he, the Christian, was presumably a terrorist.

While Gibbon mostly (and perhaps wisely) refrained from too obvious commentaries on various Biblical stories or to discuss the vagaries of Jewish prophets and Christian evangelicals, he did not hold back on the – in his opinion – secular origin and intellectual burglary of the Quran and the holy earthly recipient. In a famous passage he relates the story of the Seven Sleepers (which everybody knew since more than two hundred years) and comments:

This popular tale, which Mahomet might learn when he drove his camels to the fairs of Syria, is introduced, as a divine revelation, into the Quran.

Thomas Cole - Desolation of the Empire
Thomas Cole – Desolation of the Empire

Gibbon’ s presentation of Muhammad’s life again reflects on the holy prophet’s secular and very practical approach to life who, he thinks, …

… in his private conduct … indulged the appetites of a man, and abused the claims of a prophet. A special revelation dispensed him from the laws which he had imposed on his nation: the female sex, without reserve, was abandoned to his desires; and this singular prerogative excited the envy, rather than the scandal, the veneration, rather than the envy, of the devout Mussulmans.

Gibbon clearly had an issue with the Prophet’s dispensations of the common laws and his followers’ emancipation of the sexes, or, rather, the absence of it. Even the terror of Muslim hell could not entirely daunt him, yet neither could the pleasures of Muslim paradise entirely convince him:

The doom of the infidels is common: the measure of their guilt and punishment is determined by the degree of evidence which they have rejected, by the magnitude of the errors which they have entertained: the eternal mansions of the Christians, the Jews, the Sabians, the Magians, and idolaters, are sunk below each other in the abyss; and the lowest hell is reserved for the faithless hypocrites who have assumed the mask of religion. After the greater part of mankind has been condemned for their opinions, the true believers only will be judged by their actions.

The good and evil of each Mussulman will be accurately weighed in a real or allegorical balance; and a singular mode of compensation will be allowed for the payment of injuries: the aggressor will refund an equivalent of his own good actions, for the benefit of the person whom he has wronged; and if he should be destitute of any moral property, the weight of his sins will be loaded with an adequate share of the demerits of the sufferer. According as the shares of guilt or virtue shall preponderate, the sentence will be pronounced, and all, without distinction, will pass over the sharp and perilous bridge of the abyss; but the innocent, treading in the footsteps of Mahomet, will gloriously enter the gates of paradise, while the guilty will fall into the first and mildest of the seven hells.

The term of expiation will vary from nine hundred to seven thousand years; but the prophet has judiciously promised, that all his disciples, whatever may be their sins, shall be saved, by their own faith and his intercession from eternal damnation. It is not surprising that superstition should act most powerfully on the fears of her votaries, since the human fancy can paint with more energy the misery than the bliss of a future life. With the two simple elements of darkness and fire, we create a sensation of pain, which may be aggravated to an infinite degree by the idea of endless duration.

John Martin - Pandemonium
John Martin – Pandemonium

But the same idea operates with an opposite effect on the continuity of pleasure; and too much of our present enjoyments is obtained from the relief, or the comparison, of evil. It is natural enough that an Arabian prophet should dwell with rapture on the groves, the fountains, and the rivers of paradise; but instead of inspiring the blessed inhabitants with a liberal taste for harmony and science, conversation and friendship, he idly celebrates the pearls and diamonds, the robes of silk, palaces of marble, dishes of gold, rich wines, artificial dainties, numerous attendants, and the whole train of sensual and costly luxury, which becomes insipid to the owner, even in the short period of this mortal life.

Seventy-two Houris, or black-eyed girls, of resplendent beauty, blooming youth, virgin purity, and exquisite sensibility, will be created for the use of the meanest believer; a moment of pleasure will be prolonged to a thousand years; and his faculties will be increased a hundred fold, to render him worthy of his felicity. Notwithstanding a vulgar prejudice, the gates of heaven will be open to both sexes; but Mahomet has not specified the male companions of the female elect, lest he should either alarm the jealousy of their former husbands, or disturb their felicity, by the suspicion of an everlasting marriage.

This image of a carnal paradise has provoked the indignation, perhaps the envy, of the monks: they declaim against the impure religion of Mahomet; and his modest apologists are driven to the poor excuse of figures and allegories. But the sounder and more consistent party adhere without shame, to the literal interpretation of the Koran: useless would be the resurrection of the body, unless it were restored to the possession and exercise of its worthiest faculties; and the union of sensual and intellectual enjoyment is requisite to complete the happiness of the double animal, the perfect man. Yet the joys of the Mahometan paradise will not be confined to the indulgence of luxury and appetite; and the prophet has expressly declared that all meaner happiness will be forgotten and despised by the saints and martyrs, who shall be admitted to the beatitude of the divine vision.

So he makes fun of it, but easy it was indeed. It was a mark of Gibbon that he took liberties with his opinions and judgements that previous historians had not dared. It was held much against him, in the sense that it was unbecoming for a historian – who should be “fair” – if there were such a thing …

The poor Jews did not fare much better – they were called “a race of fanatics, whose dire and credulous superstition seemed to render them the implacable enemies not only of the Roman government, but also of humankind“.

Thus, by our politically correct standards of today, there is much to criticize in Gibbon. But there is much to admire – not the least his audacity of judgement. But perhaps unsurpassed in English historiography is his sheer dexterity of style, accuracy in diction and – to the everlasting amusement of the disciple – inexhaustible supply of irony, satire and sarcasm. Considering the amazing supply of human folly our contemporaries evidence daily, writing history might as well be fun.

And fun Gibbon is.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)

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Luigi Albertini and the Outbreak of the War

Luigi Albertini
Luigi Albertini

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019 – Book Three “Risico” (PDF) of “The Little Drummer Boy” contains in chapters XIII to XVII a 150-page summary of Albertini’s findings.)

For everybody who is concerned with the causes of the First World War, the research of Luigi Albertini (19 October 1871 – 29 December 1941) , long-time editor of the famous Italian newspaper “Corriere della Sera“, is the foundation of factual knowledge. He was able to talk or correspond to many witnesses while they were still alive – even to some of the conspirators of Sarajevo. He published his findings in The Origins of the War of 1914. The last available edition by Enigma Books may still be found at discount stores or flea markets (regular market prices start at $250 for used specimens, but one can get lucky – book store link – or borrow from a library).

In the words of John Keegan:

The bedrock of all discussion remains L. Albertini’s The Origins of the War of 1914… which provides a detailed chronology of the crisis and excerpts from the most important documents.” [The First World War, ISBN 0-375-70045-5, p. 450]

At 2120 pages (in the Enigma-Books Edition pictured above) the work presents not only reproductions of many original documents – diplomatic cables, treaties, memoranda and newspaper articles, Albertini and his German-speaking co-author Luciano Magrini interviewed many of the true protagonists of the drama – from ambassadors, politicians, fellow journalists, university researchers up to a few of the actual conspirators and perpetrators of the Sarajevo assassination and their puppet-masters or svengali.

Although many statements of the involved are – naturally – of self-serving character, they do provide fascinating insights. The lecture of Albertini is the principal homework for every writer aspiring to close in on the difficult subject – one must observe with dismay that some aspriring “historians” refrain from the burden.

The circumstances of the period of his writing were – contingent on the imbalance of available documents (many German and Russian documents were unavailable due to the revolutions in their homelands, the Austrians, as usually, misplaced a lot, a good portion of others – especially French and Italian ones – proved doctored) to some extent coined by “anti-German” and especially “anti-Austrian” sentiments – quite understandably – but his reasoning is always impeccable and his judgements just – as far as the sources allowed.

Albertini took over the Corriere della Sera in 1900 and in the following 25 years developed it into the most modern, widely read and respected newspaper of Italy. He was sacked by the owners in 1925 due to his anti-Fascist views as a life-long liberal. Between 1914 and 1922 he was a member of the Italian Senate.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019 – Book Three “Risico” (PDF) of “The Little Drummer Boy” contains in chapters XIII to XVII a 150-page summary of Albertini’s findings.)

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Anton Joachimsthaler – The private life of Adolf Hitler

Many posts in this blog’s category “Adolf Hitler” feature his work – please check the Main Menu!

Anton Joachimsthaler is the researcher who has done by far the most to furnish us with accurate data about two periods of Adolf Hitler’s life about which we know least – his adolescence and early years before he entered the limelight of being party boss – and his last days at the bunker of the Reichskanzlei in Berlin.

He was born 1930 at Hohenelbe in what was at that time the Sudetenland, formerly a province of Austria-Hungary, then Czechoslovakia, then of Nazi Germany and is now part of the Czech Republic.

By training an electrical engineer, he worked for the Deutsche Bundesbahn from 1956 on and has written extensively about railroad studies – in particular the standard work on Hitler’s planned broad-gauge railway through Europe – with a track width of 3000 millimetres more than twice as wide as the European standard track of 1435 millimetres (“Die Breitspurbahn”, see the picture in the gallery above).

Together with Brigitte Hamann, he has provided since – by meticulous research – most of the details of Hitler’s early days that we know. In 1989, he published “Korrektur einer Biographie” (‘Correction of a Biography’, Langen Müller Verlag, ISBN 3-7766-1575-3), in which many details were brought to attention for the first time – details about the name change of Hitler’s father Adolf Schicklgruber, for example, and a plethora of facts previously unknown. In agreement with Hamann, he argued most convincingly that Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” story of developing his anti-Semitism in Vienna before the war of 1914 was simply a fairytale for posterity – nothing anti-Semitic has been passed on by Hitler before 1919 in Munich or reported by anyone else.

This he followed up with a much-extended version in 2000, named “Hitler’s Weg begann in München 1913 – 1923” (‘Hitler’s Way began in Munich’, F.A. Herbig, München, ISBN 3-7766-2155-9).

In 2003, he published “Hitlers Liste. Ein Dokument persönlicher Beziehungen” (‘Hitler’s List. A document of personal relationships’, München, Verlag F.A. Harbig, ISBN 3776623284) – a meticulous report on all known relations Hitler’s to women.

His conclusion is that Hitler never entertained any sexual relationship to a woman – a deduction contradicted by Heike Görtemaker, who published in 2011 the most recent major biography of Eva Braun.

In 2004, he followed with “Hitler’s Ende”, a collection of the testimony of fifty witnesses of the dying minutes of the dictator, which was praised by Ian Kershaw as a “meticulous study of the testimony and forensic evidence” as to Hitler’s last days and death” [Kershaw, Ian (2001) [2000]. Hitler, 1936–1945: Nemesis. New York; London: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN978-0-393-32252-1.)

This book is also available in English – Joachimsthaler, Anton (1999) [1995]. The Last Days of Hitler: The Legends, The Evidence, The Truth. Brockhampton Press. ISBN1-86019-902-X.

As a publisher, he released 1985 the memoirs of Christa Schroeder, one of Adolf Hitler’s private secretaries.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)

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