Are we insane?

It is difficult to argue with the suggestion that modern human beings are insane, as we trash the environment, poison our own air and water and our own food supplies, send countless species to extinction, indulge in numerous wars, even drive the global climate towards unpredictable extremes. Steve Taylor‘s 2012 book Back to Sanity addresses this issue. Yes we are insane, but we can get back onto a sane track.

Steve suggests that it was not always so, quoting a number of indigenous leaders and their perception of Europeans, who spread the madness across the globe, for example:

“Indian faith sought the harmony of man with his surroundings; the other sought the dominance of surroundings…”

Chief Luther Standing Bear

Steve suggests that “we suffer from a basic psychological disorder that is the source of our dysfunctional behaviour, both as individuals and as a species.” He coins the term ‘humania’ or ‘ego-madness’ to describe the condition – a malfunctioning of the ego. The essential thesis is that humania is a surface condition, and within we always have access to harmony, sanity and connectedness.

The book is in two parts. Part I examines the psychological dissorder and its effects, how humania gives rise to pathological human behaviours. Part II examines how we can practically transcend this psychological discord, and attain a real state of sanity, which is of course a theme of sages across the ages.

Steve is a psychologist, and his practical suggestions are well founded; many of which you will have come across elsewhere, for example: learning the habit of resting in our own mental space without needing distraction, seeking help to resolve past trauma, learning to dis-identify with thoughts, challenging our own negative scripts, practising service and mindfulness, meditation or meditative activity, periods of quiet.

Steve suggests that our only way forward as a species is for enough people to transcend humania; the alternative is too grim to contemplate, but we see the first intimations in today’s increasingly common extreme climate events.

This is one of now-many books on similar themes, a sure indication that people are beginning to change. Will it be fast enough? Who knows, but that is no reason not to try.

Steve’s book provides good diagnosis and guidance on the most pressing issue of our times.

Avebury

The neolithic remains at Avebury are on an awe-inspiring scale. There were originally three stone circles, the largest having diameter 330 metres, inside the henge – a roughly circular bank with deep internal ditch. The stones are thought to have remained largely intact from around the neolithic period 3-4000BC until the late middle ages, the 14th century, when some of the stones were removed/ buried, presumably due to their pagan associations.

The stones and village of Avebury, ditch in foreground

The stones were cataloged in 16C, removed/buried in 17-18C, and substantially restored in 20C. The village you can see in the background was built in one of the circles.

The site is now maintained by the National Trust, together with the long avenue of standing stones (West Kennet Avenue), connecting the circles to other contemporary remains including the mound at Silbury Hill. The whole is on a vast scale, indicating that this was no primitive society, as we tend to think.

Read More »

Saint Richard Whiting

On entering Glastonbury Abbey, one of the first buildings you come to is the charming little St. Patrick’s Chapel. Here is a mural which recalls the last days of the Abbey in 1539.

At the time of the Dissolution programme which began in 1534, Richard Whiting was the gentle and respected bishop of Glastonbury Abbey, the second richest religious institution in England, with around 100 monks. The story is well told by Wikipedia here.

In essence, Whiting was conned in the early years that the programme would only affect smaller institutions. By 1539 Glastonbury was the only remaining abbey in Somerset. On being told to surrender the Abbey, Whiting refused, acting legally correctly. Naturally, the Glastonbury leaders took steps to keep the abbey’s treasures safe. This was then turned round by the church commissioners, and ultimately Thomas Cromwell acting on behalf of King Henry VIII, as evidence of treason. His defiance was simply not acceptable to the all-powerful king. There was no due process. Whiting was convicted in secret, and executed on Glastonbury Tor with two of his team.

The mural shows three gibbets on Glastonbury Tor, where the 3 men were hanged, drawn and quartered. These were savage times, and of course Whiting was not the first religious leader to be so treated.

Whiting is considered a martyr by the Catholic Church which beatified him over 300 years later.

Dissolution

One of the great infamous acts of British history was Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries 1536-41. On a recent trip across England we came across three of the great religious houses that were dissolved in this process – those at Glastonbury, Dunstable and Bury St Edmunds. The sheer extent of the ruins and the size of the remaining fragments emphasise the enormity of what happened, in a huge transfer of wealth and power from religious to royal authority. Most of the religious buildings in the abbey complexes were subsequently destroyed. Of course, these are just a small sample from the nearly 900 religious houses involved.

A modern day consolation is the wonderful opportunity for photographs offered by the remaining buildings/ fragments.

Glastonbury Abbey
Dunstable Priory, where Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was annulled
Bury St Edmunds Abbey, with modern cathedral tower in background

Gog and Magog – ancient oaks

On a recent visit to Glastonbury we passed by two one-thousand-year-old oaks, in a lane that runs by the appropriately named Old Oaks campsite. These venerable oaks date from the time of the Norman conquests, a time when wolves and bears were still Britain’s top predators. Even the names Gog and Magog are associated with ancient myths and legends (see eg Wikipedia entry).

Gog

Sad to say, although alive when we last saw it, Gog died due to a fire in 2017. How a probably careless act destroyed this ancient being – somehow symbolic of the lack of care many modern people have for nature.

Magog still survives and flourishes, despite the decrepit aspect of parts of its trunk.

Magog, with Gog behind
Hollow in Magog’s trunk

All doomed?

“A great civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”

Will Durant

To make up for a significant gap in my scientific/technological education, I once waded through Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History (abridged version, a mere 1003 pages summarising the original 12 volumes), with significant help from a large Webster’s Dictionary. The ebb and flow of humanity and its civilisations was indeed fascinating. But always there was the question at the back of my mind ‘Why do civilisations fail? This has inspired many historians to produce their own stories and analyses. William Ophuls is familiar with many of these and has produced this short book Immoderate Greatness in which he summarises the conclusions, not the stories.

So why do civilisations fail? Ophuls suggest there are six fundamental reasons:

  1. Ecological exhaustion through systematic exhaustion of the civilisation’s periphery and nature. The money economy tends to become an abstraction disconnected from the real world.
  2. Exponential growth. Essentially the future is valued at a great discount to the present. Decisions are taken for now, not for future generations.
  3. The law of Entropy, disorder tends to increase despite technological advances. Technologies tend to require more energy than they can generate. The natural system based on living processes does not have this problem.
  4. Excessive complexity. Eventually the level of problems created exhausts the capacity of people to manage them.
  5. Moral decay. Glubb identified that civilisations pass through natural ages: pioneers, commerce, affluence, intellect, then decadence. Over a period of around 250 years. In the latter age politics is increasingly corrupt and life unjust with huge wealth discrepancies – with bread and circuses to distract the people.
  6. Practical failure. The previous problems inevitably lead to increasing failure. Inflation,  debasing currency and wars have been the desperate paths historically taken. Reform and revival is possible, but is not the path most taken.

Now we have a global civilisation that has been around for about 250 years. It exhibits many of the symptoms mentioned. Collapse is possible, are we all doomed? Not necessarily.

What is clear is that fundamental change is needed – not least re global warming, catastrophic decline of the natural world, pandemics and global security. All require global cooperation.

The evident reversion of some countries to populism and posturing nationalism are moving in the wrong direction – that of moral decay, privileged elites, bread and circuses. This is the last thing that is needed.

Melchett Mere

The county of Cheshire contains a number of smallish lakes, or meres. Many date back to the glacial period of the last ice age, ‘occupying hollows in the glacial drift surface of the Cheshire Plain’ (see itemised list). The lake in Tatton Park, known as Tatton Mere, is one of these meres of glacial origin.

Tatton Mere, December 2020

Just north west of the top of Tatton Mere lies a smaller lake, named Melchett Mere, but at a noticeably lower elevation. Is this another glacial lake? It seems not. Cheshire also has a history of salt extraction and mining, notably in the area around nearby Northwich and Wincham from the 17th century. Uncontrolled mining activity led to great subsidences of ground and the formation of lakes, such as the notorious Ashton’s and Neumann’s flashes near Wincham.

Melchett Mere, March 2021

Effects of the salt mining activites, and particularly wild brine pumping, were often felt many miles away. According to the National Trust, Melchett Mere in Tatton Park was formed by a sudden collapse in 1922. The resulting lake was named by Lord Egerton after the then chairman of the extractive company he believed to have been responsible (presumably Henry Mond, 2nd Baron Melchett, who became deputy chairman of ICI in the 1940s).

Subsidence due to brine pumping activities is serious business in Cheshire, as evidence by the existence of the Brine Subsidence Compensation Board. Some of the land in this area is still subsiding. Notably this lies on the proposed route for the HS2 high speed train. I hope those guys know what they’re getting into!

The Fall

Most of us are familiar with the biblical story of the fall, when Adam and Eve were thrown out of paradise after an incident with a serpent and a piece of fruit. I remember it from Sunday School at the local Methodist Chapel. Why did our ancestors place so much emphasis on this story? It comes in Genesis 2, in verse 8, just after the creation of heaven and earth.

And the Lord God had planted a paradise of pleasure from the beginning: wherein he placed man…

God creates Adam and then Eve and by the end of Chapter 4 (verse 23), because Eve partook of the fruit of a forbidden tree (it was clearly the woman’s fault):

…the Lord God sent him out of the paradise of pleasure, to till the earth…

This was obviously highly significant to the men (well they probably were of that gender) who set down the Old Testament. Why? Well, Steve Taylor’s book The Fall has an answer to this question, not only for the scribes of that era, but also for ourselves and future human beings.

It’s taken me a while to get around to reading this book – first published in 2005 and highly recommended by many reviewers. I guess I sort of thought I knew the story, but it was not with the wonderful vision encompassed by this book. Steve is a psychologist, so his story is imbued with a deep understanding of human psychology, but he has also clearly researched and understood many disciplines to produce a work of this scope. This is a history of the fall and a vision of our potential return to paradise.

Read More »

The Fight for The Fens

Having grown up surrounded by The Fens (see earlier post), I was delighted to receive the book Imperial Mud by James Boyce, which outlines the history of this area of England. But why a book about English history written by an Aussie historian from Tasmania? This becomes clear as you realise that Boyce is also author of Van Diemens Land, a history of Tasmania. It turns out that the history of The Fens in England has strong echoes with the history of Tasmania – both being stories of displacement or co-opting of indigenous peoples in a colonial project, stealing their land for settlement.

The thing about the English Fens is that they were not easily settled by farmers, nor easily dominated by landowners. The low-lying land comprised varying degrees of bog/marsh, depending on season. But there was an abundance of fish and wildlfe, so it was possible to survive without the large farms in other areas of England. Also, travel was difficult, so the local people were very independent and distrusting of outsiders.

Boyce tells the story of the formation of the Fens and what he calls the ‘Fennish’ people with the emergence of a marshland environment in the East of England around 3-4000 years ago. The Roman invasion in AD43 had a significant impact, draining and colonising part of the Fens, provoking the rebellion led by Boudicca. After the Roman withdrawal in 410 the next ‘invasion’ came from the Christian church, through establishment of numerous monasteries, which grew into powerful centres integrated into the social fabric, and doing their own drainage projects. With the Norman invasion of 1066, feudal lords owned much of the land, alongside the monasteries, but there was still much ‘common land’ managed according to traditional practice, particularly in the Fens.

Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s led to major change, as many of the new landowners eventually wanted to enclose some of the common land and drain it for farmland. Land reclamation by drainage became big business in Holland in the late 1500s and this expertise inevitably found its way to the Fens. The political will came with the Stuart kings in the 1600s.

Boyce outlines the events of the ‘fight for the Fens’, where landowners sought to drain the land and create settlements by removing access to the Common land of the people. This was naturally resisted by local people whose way of life was being destroyed.

Read More »

Having grown up surrounded by The Fens (see earlier post), I was delighted to receive the book Imperial Mud by James Boyce, which outlines the history of this area of England. But why a book about English history written by an Aussie historian from Tasmania? This becomes clear as you realise that Boyce is also author of Van Diemens Land, a history of Tasmania. It turns out that the history of The Fens in England has strong echoes with the history of Tasmania – both being stories of displacement or co-opting of indigenous peoples in a colonial project, stealing their land for settlement.

The thing about the English Fens is that they were not easily settled by farmers, nor easily dominated by landowners. The low-lying land comprised varying degrees of bog/marsh, depending on season. But there was an abundance of fish and wildlfe, so it was possible to survive without the large farms in other areas of England. Also, travel was difficult, so the local people were very independent and distrusting of outsiders.

Boyce tells the story of the formation of the Fens and what he calls the ‘Fennish’ people with the emergence of a marshland environment in the East of England around 3-4000 years ago. The Roman invasion in AD43 had a significant impact, draining and colonising part of the Fens, provoking the rebellion led by Boudicca. After the Roman withdrawal in 410 the next ‘invasion’ came from the Christian church, through establishment of numerous monasteries, which grew into powerful centres integrated into the social fabric, and doing their own drainage projects. With the Norman invasion of 1066, feudal lords owned much of the land, alongside the monasteries, but there was still much ‘common land’ managed according to traditional practice, particularly in the Fens.

Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s led to major change, as many of the new landowners eventually wanted to enclose some of the common land and drain it for farmland. Land reclamation by drainage became big business in Holland in the late 1500s and this expertise inevitably found its way to the Fens. The political will came with the Stuart kings in the 1600s.

Boyce outlines the events of the ‘fight for the Fens’, where landowners sought to drain the land and create settlements by removing access to the Common land of the people. This was naturally resisted by local people whose way of life was being destroyed.

Read More »

My Fens

I grew up in the city of Lincoln, and was aware that much of the surrounding county of Lincolnshire was flat. And I sort of knew about The Fens, the drained area of farmland around and between the huge estuaries of the Humber and the Wash, that comprised much of the county – ‘the sticks’ we townies used to call it. The Fens also extend down to Cambridgeshire, as shown in this rough map.

Rough Map of The Fens

My family was involved in The Fens. My father worked as a designer of pumps. Now why was there such a company in Lincoln? For drainage. Uncle Bob managed drainage in The Fens. Uncle Charles worked in the engineering teams ensuring continued flow in the drainage waterways, which passed through much of the surrounding farmland, draining water into the River Witham which ran down to Boston. My great grandma lived in Bardney, where we went for walks around yet more drainage channels. My country family, with their broad flat accents, seemed to live in a different world away from the city.

There was even the Sincil Drain running past the Lincoln City football ground, where I went every Saturday. The ground is known as Sincil Bank.

Yet despite all this, and cycling around much of the countryside, I never learned much about the history and geography of the area. My technical education was more oriented to learning about the new and upcoming technologies rather than all this old stuff, and history and geography were soon dropped in favour of maths and science.

So then I went to university at Cambridge, to discover that I was still in an area of flat fields, which were also fens. I even got an evening bar job serving at a country pub in Fen Ditton, and great fun it was too.

I cycled to Cambridge from Lincoln, to move my bicycle from one place to the other. It was flat most of the way. You might think that made the riding easy; on the contrary, strong winds coming across flat fens meant a rather more extended journey than anticipated. I stopped for a rest at Crowland Abbey near Spalding, not realising what a significant place it was in the area’s history. Why was there a large abbey in the middle of this flat farmland?

Cambridge was even more fen country than Lincoln. Regular fog in winter, bitter cold when the east wind blew across from the Urals. This would have been a hard environment before the coming of the cities and farms. In fact, The Fens would have been one big bog.

While I was at Cambridge, my father’s pump company was taken over by another one in Bedford, which lay not far from the southern edge of The Fens. They moved to Bedford, but hadn’t quite escaped The Fens.

After I married we moved west, to Cheshire, and I forgot about my origins in The Fens, until I was given a book telling the history of this area, which is quite fascinating, as I will describe in a future post.

Featured image shows the channelled River Nene, near where it runs into The Wash at Sutton Bridge (2020).
The rough map of The Fens is by Jb?, CC BY-SA 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

The Old Man of Calke

It was salutary recently to visit the National Trust’s Calke Abbey in Derbyshire and come across the Old Man of Calke, an oak tree believed to be over 1000 years old – indeed there are two such oaks in the grounds. This tree was well established by the time of the great Norman conquering of England in 1066 and has ‘seen’ times of nearly a millennium since then, while living its majestic existence in the peace of the Derbyshire countryside.

Now that puts quite a context on the relative sound and fury of the affairs of the English since then. So many kings and queens, wars and revolts, comings to agreement and falling out with European neighbours, so little effect on this majestic being. Until the modern days, when who knows what threats climate change might mean for its continuation.

Our Story

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

TS Eliot, Little Gidding

In the beginning, after the big bang and the formation of the earth and living beings, human beings emerged embedded in the dream of nature. There was no differentiation.

Gradually there emerged language and groupings of people.

There were some societies where the connection with nature remained strong, where language worked in consort with the one, where men and women each brought their own strengths to that cooperation with others and with the one. They developed wonderful creativity in their cave paintings, and a wonderful science that enabled them to comprehend and relate to the cosmos through great stone constructions. They told stories that passed through the generations, passing on archetypal knowledge, lessons of experience to each new generation.

With the coming of written language, some feared that the knowledge of connection would be lost. They wrote it down, hidden away for when ignorant barbarians came, which surely they did.Read More »

Ambition Unbridled

lustrumRobert Harris writes very engaging novels based on historical events. Lustrum tells the tale of the great Roman orator Cicero, from the period when he was seen a saviour of the Roman Republic, to the time just a few years later when he was exiled from Rome by populist forces. The story is written from the perspective of Cicero’s secretary Tiro.

The story articulates well the threat to the Republic coming from the influx of money and veterans from the victorious generals Pompey in the East and Julius Caesar in the West. The hapless senators of the home Republic are increasingly subject to the machinations of these men, making Rome increasingly ungovernable.

One figure stands out in this story – the ambitious, ruthless, implacable Julius Caesar, clearly destined for power and apparently unwilling to share it with anyone else. Cicero recognised the threat, but was in the end unable to do anything about it.

I also read Dictator, the third volume of Harris’s Cicero trilogy, but found it a bit of an anticlimax as it tries to make sense of the complex events that followed, from Cicero’s exile from Rome to his death 15 years later – as Rome subsided from rule by the triumvirate of Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus into civil war, leading of course to the dictatorship of Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire.

Featured image is 16C bust of Julius Caesar by Andrea di Pietro di Marco Ferrucci.

 

End of an Empire

fate of romeWhy did the Roman Empire collapse? Kyle Harper’s very readable book The Fate of Rome makes a persuasive case that this was much to do with climate change and epidemic disease, both of which were consequences of the process of Empire itself.

It is salutary to reflect that such a political system is a process that has consequences on its environment and its citizens and their well-being. The parallels with today’s climate change and threatening global pandemic are obvious.

We could see this fatalistically in cataclysmic terms, or we can see it optimistically as being a story in need of constant renewal and redirection. It’s our choice.

My notes below outline the Empire’s story.Read More »

The Magic of Vézelay

After a recent visit to a favourite town, Vézelay in Burgundy, I dug out this unpublished article I wrote in 2002. Here it is with a bit of editing to bring it up-to-date, and a few photos.

The small town of Vézelay is a special gem. Visit here, and allow yourself to be entranced by its beauty, inspired by its spiritual quality, fascinated by its history, and restored by its natural surroundings.

Vézelay owes its existence to the tradition of pilgrimage. Its Basilica of Mary Magdalene has attracted pilgrims from all over Europe for over a thousand years. The main attraction was the relics of Mary, brought to the then monastery in the 11th century from St Maximin in Provence, where she was said to have been buried. Vézelay became one of four major starting points for pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostella in north west Spain (Paris, le Puy and Arles are the others).

Set along a hilltop, the Vézelay skyline offers an enticing perspective as you approach from any of several directions. If you park at the bottom of the hill, the main street winds picturesquely upwards past a selection of shops offering, among other things, provisions, crafts, wines, souvenirs and books, also galleries, bars, and restaurants.Read More »

Porta Nigra

After visiting Aix la Chapelle / Aachen, capital of the Holy Roman Empire around 800, it seemed appropriate to also visit Trèves / Trier around 100 miles to the south. Trèves was conquered by the Romans in the time of Emperor Augustus around 16BC, when it got its name Augusta Treverorum.  Trèves became one of the leading cities of the Roman Empire, and eventually in the 4th century oversaw much of the Western part of that Empire – that Charlemagne re-established 400 years later.

The most impressive Roman remain here is the Porta Nigra, built in 170AD, the best preserved Roman City Gate north of the Alps. This is a massive structure, a clear demonstration of power, but hardly beautiful.

porta nigra werner

I understand that we owe the current restored state of the gate to another Emperor, Napoleon.

Nearby in the attractive city centre is the cathedral, said to have been originally commissioned by Emperor Constantine, but clearly most of it is much more recent. It’s a nice enough cathedral to explore, along with its cloisters and the neighbouring Liebfrauenkirche.

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There are more Roman remains in Trier, but we didn’t tarry long. Traffic problems seemed even more intense than in the UK. We headed for France!

The first image of the gate is from Wikimedia Commons, thanks to Berthold Werner

 

Charlemagne’s Cathedral

I’ve previously mentioned how Aix la Chapelle, or Aachen, was the original capital of the holy Roman Empire founded by Charlemagne in 800. As befits an Emperor, the cathedral built for Charlemagne, completed around 805, is even today quite magnificent.

The interior is painted or marbled in magnificent fashion, which quite took my breath away on a recent visit. Of course, the original cathedrals were decorated both inside and outside. Here at least the interior decoration remains, giving a taste of just how impressive these buildings originally were. And just imagine the collective dedication and money that has gone into maintaining such an edifice over more than twelve centuries.

Here are just four photographs (as slideshow) to give a brief impression. You just have to go there for the experience.

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Aix la Chapelle

To visit Europe is to travel through history, and in my case gradually build up a picture of Europe’s history that was neglected in my education. I first heard of Aix la Chapelle as the capital of the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne, which reunited Western Europe, effectively recreating the original Roman Empire (European Union is not a modern idea!). Charlemagne was crowned Emperor there in the year 800.

Eventually I realised that the romantic-sounding Aix la Chapelle is actually known as the much more dour sounding Aachen in German. The roman languages are so much more poetic! Aachen is today in Germany, close to the Belgian border.

According to Wikipedia, Aach, means river or stream, corresponding to the Latin aqua and the French Aix. Remains show that Aachen was indeed a Roman ‘spa’ town. ‘La Chapelle’ of course refers to Charlemagne’s cathedral, one of Europe’s great and most historic buildings, originally completed around 805.

aachen cathedral
Chapelle of Aix/Aachen

I intend to say more about a recent visit to Aachen in a future post.

Featured image shows Aachen town hall and cathedral,
by Arne Hückelheim via Wikimedia Commons

The Shortest History of Germany

shortest history of germany.jpgI’ve been reading this little 227 page paperback by James Hawes. It does a great job of outlining the history of Germany for a popular audience. Having had a severely deficient education in the history department, I feel that this sort of knowledge should be the baseline of all Europeans, whether Brexited or not. This is after all the history of the centre of our continent.

Take some of the key points:

  • The Roman Empire  in its greater form was established by Julius Caesar. In 58BC he gave name to the peoples beyond the River Rhine that he could not easily conquer: the Germanii. He even used them as bodyguards.
  • Around 16AD Germanicus eventually claimed the territory between Rhine and Elbe for the Empire. This was not particularly secured and eventually a defensible ‘wall’ was built roughly along and to the west of the Rhine (The Limes).
  • When the Empire began to fall apart there was eventual ‘renewal’ by Constantine 306-337, changing the focus of the Empire to the east at Constantinople. But the Empire gradually fell apart with successive waves of invasion from the east – goths, franks, huns, vandals and so on.
  • After the fall of the Roman Empire the franks attempted renewal resulting in Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire around 800, extended beyond the Elbe to the Oder by Otto in 948, but this extension to the east was fragile and the place was run by independent lords who became known as known as Junkers. The HRA lasted for many hundreds of years of manoeuvering between Kings, Emperors and Popes.
  • The peak was around 1229 when Frederick II briefly liberated Jerusalem without a fight. The teutonic knights that had helped pilgrimage to the holy land were given the new task of subduing an area in what is now Poland/Russia – Prussia.
  • In 1356 the Kings freed themselves from the Pope and established control on future Emperors.
  • The Reformation was begun by Luther on the Elbe and took root to the east, the west remaining Catholic. Conflict began. There was a temporary truce in Charles V’s Peace of Augsburg (1555), but eventually 30 years of war (1618-48) that destroyed much of Germany, but the Prussian/Junker state survived and prospered through great power machinations.
  • Following the French Revolution of 1789, Napoleon effectively re-established the Holy Roman Empire – his hero was Charlemagne. He established the Confederation of the Rhine that got the west Germans organised again.
  • After the first defeat of Napoleon, Prussia was ‘given’ some of these west German states, instigated by Britain – to provide a counterweight to a possible French resurgence.
  • This was eventually crystallized by Bismarck into the dominance of an aggressive Prussian Germany. In 1870 Napoleon III fell into a trap set by Bismarck, and France was overrun in the subsequent war. A new German Empire was declared, and France lost territories. By 1887 the seeds were set for the coming 1914 world war, as France/Russia faced off against Germany/Austria.
  • Following the end of WW1 the liberal Weimar Republic desperately tried to re-establish a functioning country despite the over-burdensome terms of Versailles. They were undone by the 1929 Crash, with resulting reduction in American support and rising unemployment. The Nazi party gradually arose from the East, where their main support lay, and eventually got into power due to misjudgements that they could be ‘controlled’. They could not, and WW2 came to complete the battle against Prussian dominance.
  • The new West Germany was basically the old confederation, once a core part of the Roman Empire. The new East Germany was basically the residual Junker/Prussian state, Prussia itself having been obliterated.
  • Following the collapse of the USSR in 1989, Chancellor Helmut Kohl engineered the recombination of the two Germanys, which has proved a major drain on the West German economy ever since. One has to wonder, was this wise? Polls show the East to be poorer, older and more right wing…

For me, this is a stunningly informative and thought-provoking book, putting in context much of European history and throwing light on modern events. (Apologies for my own oversimplification and misinterpretations.) Essential information really for understanding our world.

And of course, it is completely different from the Neil MacGregor’s Germany, reviewed a few years ago.

Ever Flowing

I contemplate the huge flowing mass of water before me, opposite the ‘German Corner’ in Koblenz where rivers Rhine and Moselle join together, overlooked by the massive monument to Kaiser Wilhelm, first German emperor 1871-88. Here is inexorable power and movement before me, a part of the cyclic flow of the earth’s water system. Today, tomorrow, it is always there, pretty much as in Wilhelm’s day, yet always different.

As it happens, I have been reading The Shortest History of Germany, by James Hawes and A Short History of Europe by Simon Jenkins. I am struck by how the major figures in these histories have their brief flowering influence, usually driven by an overwhelming ego, often associated with some abstract concept, and without concern for the consequences on their own and other peoples: Julius Caesar, Constantine, Charlemagne, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Bismarck, Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, and on and on…

Recent events suggest that this flow goes on, to new dimensions, with environmental breakdowns and resulting attempted migration of populations, and the rise of populists – more blooming egos with their destructive consequences. Yet ever new challenges require ever better solutions, not the gross over-simplifications of those who appeal to what is lowest in us. They will be seen in time for what they are.

The flow of history, and the zeitgeist, inevitably moves ever on, just as those great rivers – the same as before, yet ever different.

Maybe we should not fear too much. The flow that matters is here, now. Our fears are that the future may not be the same as the peace and plenty of our recent past (in the West). Our present is the opportunity for our own best action, guided by conscience, not by selfish ego or abstractions.