Do not click on this
bearer of evil tidings
When he was halfway
Remembered that evil tidings
Are a dangerous
thing to bear.
And as for the evil
Why hasten to tell
What Belshazzar soon will know?
Most of us play a game with the
unpleasantnesses of history: If only this, or if only
that, terrible consequences might have been avoided.
Sometimes I muse that if a few clever
people simply had kept their mouths shut, the world
might have been a better place.
The old Viennese
cafe quip (quoted by Paul Johnson in his History of
the Jews) comes to
mind: "Anti-Semitism wasn't getting anywhere until the
Jews got behind it." Nietzsche and Wagner came to
embrace paganism through the works of the Jewish poet
and critic Heinrich Heine. Nietzsche gave Heine full
credit for the discovery that Christianity formed a thin
veneer over Germany's pagan religion. Wagner stole the story
for his first Wagnerian opera, "The Flying
Dutchman", from Heine. Heine should have listened to his
mother and become a banker.
There is nothing wrong with this
sort of day-dreaming, unless, of course, one becomes
obsessed by it. The elites of the West have spent the
past 88 years obsessed with the outbreak of World War I.
Put me in a time machine and take me back to July 1914,
they mutter to themselves, and I will save the world
from all the evils of the 20th century. One searches through the languages of the world
for an expression sufficiently dismissive.
modo, say the Mexicans.
Es soll gor nicht
helfen, say the Jews.
If only, if only. It really
doesn't matter whether the bearer of evil tidings
arrives in time or not. The tragedies of history are
tragedies in the precise sense of the term, that is, a
disastrous event caused by an incurable tragic flaw. The
flaws of a culture and of its leaders bring about its
ruin, Thucydides explained in his Peloponnesian Wars two
and a half millennia ago.
Napoleon was master of Europe when
he invaded Russia and lost everything. What made him
master of Europe, however, was the fact that every young
man of ambition flocked to his banner. To keep his army
intact he had to keep conquering, and Russia was the
only big unconquered country available. In fact, the
bearer of evil tidings already had arrived 16 years
earlier, and was known to every educated European: I
refer to Friedrich Schiller's Wallenstein trilogy of
1798, depicting the Imperial Generalissimo of the 30
Years' War as the captive of the army, his own creation.
"Am I a Napoleon, or a Mohammed?"
murmurs Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky's Crime and
If only the diplomats of Europe
had found a solution to the crisis of July 1914, Western
civilization might not have come to ruin in two world
wars. All the political science, diplomacy, and
historifying of the Western elites has played this
monotone for three generations.
Of course, nothing could have
prevented the war. It was a tribute to the skill of the
diplomats that the war took so long to break out. Men
will die to preserve their culture. Culture is what
makes one generation intelligible to the next. In the
popular mind, as T S Eliot observed, it is
indistinguishable from religion. Suppose, I have
written before, that you knew that your culture would
disappear, and that no one who came after, not your
children nor anyone else's, would speak your language,
sing your songs, hope your hopes, or comprehend your
concerns? What would be the meaning of your life?
cultures take desperate measures. The Slavs of the
former Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 20th century
faced such a danger. Weakened by centuries of
oppression, they faced absorption into the German
culture which had contended with the Slavs for
centuries. The Russians, with their Dostoyevskyan
Messianism, fed by a smoldering sense of inferiority,
embraced the Slavic cause. A civilizational clash with
German-speaking Europe could not be avoided. The German
general staff argued that Russia might become
undefeatable after one more generation of
industrializing and railroad-building. It was in
Germany's interest to settle accounts as soon as
possible. Of course, if Germany and Austria
fought Russia alone in 1914, they would have emerged as
undefeatable powers. The French, long in decline, had
one last chance to reassert their own decaying culture
against Germany. The common people of no country
welcomed war so ecstatically as the French, nor gave of
their manhood so generously. One of every 10 Frenchman
of military age died in the war.
No more than
Pericles, Wallenstein or Napoleon could the European
powers of 1914 avoid catastrophe. Like the Protestant
and Catholic powers in Germany of the 17th century, the
Allies and Central Powers were evenly matched, so that
the war could end only with the ruin of both sides.
Which brings me to why no one
should read this essay. If you have come this far, please hit the
Back button now.
Iraq's nuclear program
is the 21st century equivalent of Russia's railroads in
1914. The United States must prevent Saddam Hussein from
building nuclear weapons now, or the cost of stopping
him (and others in the future) will be incalculable. The
trouble is that today's Arabs (and to a great extent
other Islamic populations) are in the position of the
Slavs of 1914. They are an endangered culture, and like
many endangered cultures, the extremists among them will
take desperate measures.
No more than in 1914 can the
diplomats avert a tragedy. No more than in 1914 does any
important participant desire a tragedy. The elite of
Europe and America's East Coast somnambulistically
re-enacts the first days of August 1914, wailing out
warnings like a tragic chorus. The American
administration believes it will bring democracy to the
Mideast, and plows ahead like a tragic hero. The tragedy
will proceed. Unlike 1914, of course, the two sides are
not equally matched. America outweighs its prospective
adversaries by an order of magnitude. Yet its potential
adversaries are so numerous and so bereft of hope that
the tragedy will not play itself out in four terrible
years. It well may last for 40.
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