Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Protocols of the Elders of Albion

As part of my slow, winding journey through the canon of Moldbug primary sources, I recently finished Ernst Graf zu Reventlow's "Vampire of the Continent". Moldbug describes it as "German World War I propaganda", and I think that's a fair description. If you know what I think on the subject of propaganda, I don't think this should even vaguely be a knock against reading it. A quick test is the following: can you accurately summarise a case for why the German cause in WWI was just? If not, chances are that reading a strident defense of the cause will be quite illuminating.

That said, the book is less a strict account of the leadup to WWI, and much more a general slander on Great Britain's character and history. You can think of it, in other words, as the Protocols of the Elders of Albion, except that instead of being a forgery that purported to be from the mouths of Britons themselves, it's just a standard case for the prosecution. Because the approximate message is "England is responsible for screwing up European countries for the last 500 years". This is an interesting counterpoint to the usual sins of the British Empire from the leftist perspective, which tend to wax lyrical about its treatment of native peoples in its colonies. But you seldom hear very much at all about its apparent injustices against other European countries.

Reventlow's history of England proposes several key aspects to the English character. In his telling, in the 16th and 17th century, England was essentially a pirate nation, using its large fleet to slowly predate on other nations' shipping. Having then an advantage on shipping, it used this to take over other European colonies - once cut off from reinforcements from home by the shipping advantage, they were unable to withstand English naval attacks, and so even though England discovered relatively few new land areas itself, it nonetheless ended up with a very large empire. From there, it pursued a strong policy of mercantilism, reacting hostilely to any other nation that seemed to be developing a significant trading and shipping business, partly by securing rights in foreign ports which it then used to monopolise trade in those areas. Finally, it pursued a policy on the continent of setting one European power against another, using others to fight its battles and form alliances against whichever country was looking most threatening at the time as a potential competitor.

Let's take this as all being true, if just for the purposes of argument. There's a couple of responses one might have to this as a European, and specifically a German:

1. Huh! Those Brits really are better at the Great Game than we are, and we are dupes and fools for repeatedly being suckered and bested. Hats off to them!

2. The British succeed by using low and disreputable tactics that mark them as villains and blackguards. They are hostis humani generis, and all civilised nations should ally to defeat them.

It seems pretty clear that #2 is what Reventlow is going for. He embraces the second half of #1 (many Germans are too honest and too naive to understand Britain's perfidy), but he seldom acknowledges what a Machiavellian would say - the Brits played a tight game, and honor be damned when it comes to nations.

You see this interplay in a variety of places. For instance, during the Napoleonic Wars, England's main early contribution was... the destruction of the Danish Navy in 1807. This was for the crime of continuing to trade with revolutionary France, but also just proved handy in general, because it's one less country with a threatening navy. Meanwhile, Spanish and German troops did most of the actual fighting against Napoleon, and Europe as a whole ended up significantly weakened.

#2 works pretty well for describing the ways Britain strangled other countries' navies and trade, which seem pretty grim, if effective.

But take #2 has a much harder time with the issue of why other European nations kept lining up to fight its battles. Ally with the Dutch to fight for independence against the Spanish when Spain was strong, and do so in the name of protecting Protestantism. Keep this up until the Dutch look like they might be getting too strong, then ally with France to fight the Dutch.  Ally with the German nations to beat Napoleonic France. When the Russians start looking too strong and might threaten business interests in Asia, ally with the Ottomans and the French to fight them and let the French take most of the casualties. Stay out of it when Prussia and France fight each other. etc.

In the Reventlow telling, Britain's opposition to Germany came relatively late, in part because Germany had been devastated by the 30 Years War. Hence the policy of "gang up on the most threatening European power" didn't turn its attention to Germany until the late 19th and early 20th century. Reventlow claims, quite credibly, that without the devastation of the 30 Years War, Germany might have been a major power much sooner.

If you want a summary of the mindset that does purport to be exactly the same sentiment, except spoken from the mouths of British civil servants, Yes Minister does it quite well:
Sir Humphrey: Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last five hundred years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians. Divide and rule, you see. Why should we change now, when it's worked so well?
Hacker: That's all ancient history, surely?
Sir Humphrey: Yes, and current policy. We had to break the whole thing [the EEC] up, so we had to get inside. We tried to break it up from the outside, but that wouldn't work. Now that we're inside we can make a complete pig's breakfast of the whole thing — set the Germans against the French, the French against the Italians, the Italians against the Dutch... The Foreign Office is terribly pleased; it's just like old times.
Hacker: But surely we're all committed to the European ideal?
Sir Humphrey: [chuckles] Really, Minister.
Hacker: If not, why are we pushing for an increase in the membership?
Sir Humphrey: Well, for the same reason. It's just like the United Nations, in fact; the more members it has, the more arguments it can stir up, the more futile and impotent it becomes.
Hacker: What appalling cynicism.
Sir Humphrey: Yes... We call it diplomacy, Minister.

Cynical, and yet apparently very effective.

On the other hand, there are certain actions that England took that do just look straight out predatory. If one is trying to evaluate a theory like the current one, it's somewhat useful to find facts where the theory offers a competing explanation to the standard one. Of course, to evaluate the relative merits often requires a lot more research. An easier test for the lazy, and somewhat more illuminating one, is to find facts where one realises that one essentially has no theory at all, and this offers the first one.

For instance, why is Quebec part of Canada? I knew about the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, and the question of how it ended up part of Britain's colonies. But there's the other question of why. Suppose that you were a generally civic-minded leader of Britain. You already had a lot of colonies in North America by 1758. Not only that, it's a gigantic continent with a relatively sparse population, mostly made up of Indians that you have been pretty successful in driving out. The French have a few colonies up in the frozen north. Where would you choose to expand? Would you:

a) Live and let live, leave the French to their part, and settle somewhere else up the enormous East Coast of North America? Prosperous French colonies will then come to our aid if needed, or at least make good trading partners.

b) Instead of taking uninhabited land, engage in a seven years' long conflict to crush and subjugate all the French colonies in North America?

Obviously the answer is b)! And that's why you're some nice guy reading a blog, and not the leader of a world-bestriding empire.

Or, to take another example - what the hell happened to Spain? How did it go from being the most powerful country in the world in 1500, to being a joke and a basket case by 1900, getting humiliated and having most of its last of its colonies taken off it by the US?

I suspect most people don't have a good answer on hand to this question, other than some shrug and reference to the tides of history. But Reventlow has a theory. And it's that Britain invested heavily in shipping, and used this to predate on Spanish treasure ships coming back from its colonies. England fought off the Spanish Armada and sank a good fraction of its ships in 1588, carved off various colonies and bled Spain the War of the Spanish Succession (while again letting continentals do most of the fighting), fought the Spanish fleet again at Trafalgar, etc.

Spain's power was, in this retelling, worn down by British political intrigues, military attacks, predation, and the slow grind of centuries that didn't have a decisive single moment that you can readily point to.

Is this the full story? Almost certainly not. Does it have a ring of possible truth to it? You bet. Do you have a better theory? If so, leave it in the comments. I sure didn't.

Similarly, I didn't know exactly what happened to Holland either. There was the Dutch Golden Age starting in the mid 1600s, and ... then what? England allying with France to defeat it, and then subjugating it further in the War of the Spanish succession, is a definitely plausible theory.

The question is, should we be outraged? Reventlow wants us to be, but the basis for this is not exactly obvious. Full Machiavellianism is an entirely defensible position when it comes to international relations - whatever works. Reventlow views it as unsporting or ungentlemanly to predate on other Europeans. But one doesn't have to be a full leftist to see that there's quite a large ethical blind spot as to how the European powers got their colonies in their first place. It being the early 20th century, the native peoples don't even rate a mention. But even more strikingly, not everyone who we would consider modern Europeans even rates a mention. The most hilarious instance of this is from the translator (an Irishman)'s introduction:

Founded on piracy, the British Empire has been built up at the expense of humanity. The English commenced by robbing the Spanish treasure-ships — acts of murderous and dastardly brigandage which are held up to Englishmen to-day as deeds of prowess. 
They continued by robbing Canada and the States from the French, Gibraltar from the Spaniards, India from the French and the Portuguese, South Africa from the Dutch, Egypt and Cyprus from the Turks, Malta from the Italians — and last, but not least, Ireland from the Irish. 
Germany, in fighting for her own existence, is fighting also for the liberation of the world. The great day of liberation will surely come, sooner or later. The condition sine qua non of that liberation is the destruction of England's maritime supremacy. 
For as long as England rules the waves, humanity must remain her slave. This is a fundamental truth. And another fundamental truth is that England's maritime supremacy cannot be destroyed until IRELAND IS A FREE COUNTRY. 
The one criticism which can be levelled against Count Reventlow's admirable work is that it has not sufficiently insisted on this second great truth. As long as Ireland remains a British colony — or, rather, a British fortress — England can at any time shut off the whole of Northern and Eastern Europe from all access to the ocean; even as, by means of Gibraltar and Port Said and Aden, she can close the Mediterranean. Ireland is the key to the Atlantic. Release Ireland from her bondage, and the Atlantic is at once opened up to Europe. 
Therefore must Ireland be restored to Europe, if Europe is to be free. An independent, neutral Irish Nation would be the natural bulwark of European liberty in the West. The freedom of Europe depends on the freedom of the seas ; and the freedom of the seas depends on the liberation of Ireland. 
In other words - I spent ages translating this damn thing from German out of a hatred of England, and this bastard doesn't even have the courtesy to mention Ireland anywhere. The hilarious part of this pitch is that he's left arguing that Ireland is actually super strategically important you guys!!! . Reventlow didn't forget to mention us because we're unimportant peasants whose rights get reduced to zero in the same way the Native Americans and Caribbean people do, no, he did so as a terrible strategic oversight.  It's not enough to say "I'm pissed because I happen to be Irish", no, you, American reader, should be convinced of the importance of liberating Ireland for the sake of its crucial role in global peace. Ireland was, of course, liberated in 1922, at which point a lasting peace broke out and England was no longer able to threaten anybody on the continent. Of course.

Stealing, in both the Reventlow and translator world, is a crime, but only if carried out against other Europeans. These days this doesn't strike us as a particularly compelling moral line in the sand, but that's all the more reason to read what people actually used to think. This was considered a sufficiently plausible viewpoint that the Germans paid to get the English translation shipped to the US, during WWI, by U-Boat. I didn't even know they had them in WW1, but there you go.

There are lots of other nuggets in there that are fascinating too. For instance, King Edward VII was claimed to have played a significant diplomatic role in 1904 in personally steering diplomatic efforts with regard to the Austrian Empire, and would make annual visits to the Austrian Emperor to this effect. This is something I'm always apt to forget, but Henry Maine would be at pains to emphasise - Kings in England had real power, long after the Glorious Revolution, and their influence was only lost slowly and gradually. Apparently in 1900 they were still significant players in setting state policy.  

The other aspect that's interesting is that the leadup to WW1 is really freaking complicated. My school history class just parachuted us in at the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip as being some sort of trigger of an odd set of alliances, without any real explanation of who he was or why. The fact that Austria had just annexed Serbia wasn't mentioned, let alone the question of why they'd done so (Turkey under the Young Turks was threatening various Austrian possessions, and Austria in turn... see, I told you it was complicated). 

Finally, another reason to read it is to get a view into a very old and very unfashionable mindset these days - mercantilism. The Reventlow depiction of the English is almost incomprehensible to a reader steeped in modern economics. When other nations go into recession, that's bad news for us. Comparative advantage and trade make us all richer. We want other countries to become rich, to buy more of our stuff. 

Yeah, not these guys. They want other countries broke and isolated, because this ensures they won't be a political threat, and lets us ship more of our own goods to other countries to dominate international trade and shipping.

It may be dumb economics, but is it dumb politics? That's much harder to say. And given how successful the Brits were at it, if you believe Reventlow at all, you have to give the idea more credit than you might have otherwise.

Overall, the case is obviously a highly partisan exaggeration, but an informative one nonetheless. There is a right wing case against the British Empire, even if it's largely forgotten, and even if it's somewhat confused.

When all is said and done, I'll give Reventlow this: the old school English were some tough and shrewd bastards, who played a tight game for centuries, and were stone cold killers if you got on the wrong side of them. No matter what you think of the overall merits of the British Empire, if you were standing on some land that they decided they wanted, in the immediate future you were going to have a pretty bad time. A contrary to what modern leftists would have you believe, being Spanish or French, as opposed to Native American, Indian, African or anything else, didn't commend them to you in the slightest.