The Christmas Truce of 1914 was a judgement upon a civilization with a supporting culture that no longer directed its members toward the heavenly transformation of the world. But as soon as it was delivered, post-Christian Christendom’s utopian project revived. On the day following, the thundering of cannon and crackling of machine guns quickly drowned out the memory of paradise.
The Age of Utopia: Christendom from the Renaissance to the Russian Revolution, by John Strickland
Before getting to this part of Stickland’s work, a couple of thoughts come to mind regarding this truce and Strickland’s observation: first, that the men fighting the war on opposite sides had much more in common with each other than they did with those who were ordering them to fight. Perhaps there was still something of Christendom within them.
Second, Stickland paints a picture of the common man grasping for a piece of paradise, of heavenly transformation. The men may not have thought about it that way, but for a short time they had community – they played football against each other, they commemorated mass with each other.
Today, once again we see it is the common man searching for transcendent meaning in an otherwise meaningless West, while his “betters” are doing their best, just as they did in the Great War, to strip the common man of all meaning.
Stickland opens this chapter with an examination of the move toward nationalism following the revolutionary period of 1848. It wasn’t like Christendom was not divided previously into tribes – Europe for countless centuries was divided into almost countless tribal groups. However, the uniting force of Europe was Christendom, overriding or sitting above the tribal divisions.
This uniting force is visible in every “old town” in western Europe. For centuries, it was the church or cathedral building that marked the center of the village or town, holding the premier spot in the town square, where people would gather for the market or for community.
No longer. The uniting force went from Christendom to nationalism. France had its Arc de Triomphe, commemorating the fallen soldiers of the Napoleonic wars, and the Eiffel Tower which marked the centennial of the Storming of the Bastille. England had Admiral Nelson’s Trafalgar Square, Crystal Palace, and, of course, its Parliament Building.
The United States was a key player here as well, with monuments to national pride, with The Apotheosis of Washington painted into the interior of the Capitol dome – a long way from the Hagia Sophia, with Christ Pantocrator.
Out of the revolutions of 1848, a new Germany would arise, the time marked by Otto von Bismark. He would become chancellor of Prussia under King Wilhelm I in the later part of the nineteenth century, and would advocate for “blood and iron” – a combination of nationalism and militarism. By 1871 and victory over France, a new, united Germany would be formed, held under Prussian monarchy.
Another aside: in this victory over France, France was forced to cede the territory of Alsace-Lorraine. This territory had a history of dispute stretching back over one thousand years. Charlemagne’s empire did not last united for long. By the time of his grandsons, it was divided into three parts – one for each grandson; basically, what is now France to the west, what is now Germany to the east, and right in the middle – Alsace-Lorraine…Middle Francia. The two brothers, east and west, would fight to defeat Lothar, the third brother who was king over this middle territory. How many times has this land changed hands since….
Returning to Strickland, with German unification, Wilhelm went from king to Kaiser (emperor). A new parliament building was erected and a Kulturkampf (“culture struggle”) was launched against the Catholic Church, seeking to reduce the power of Rome in Germany – nationalism over Church.
Treaties with Austria first, then Russia, would follow. With such an arrangement, it seemed peace in Europe was secure, and Germany would not face the risk of a two-front war. But Wilhelm’s grandson, Wilhelm II, would change all this. The treaty with Russia was cancelled, and France would then secure a treaty with its ideological enemy, Russia, in the wake of this fateful move – immediately opening the threat of a two-front war. We know the rest of this story.
Meanwhile, humans were divided into higher and lower races, with Caucasians at the top of the pyramid. The values of traditional Christianity – a recognition that all are made in the image of God, an image that never played out perfectly but which drove social progress – were deemed null and void. The there was Wagner, whose most famous opera presented Siegfried slaying the giant Fafner – Germany slaying her enemies.
Russia was much more ambivalent toward this modernizing project. Yes, the intelligentsia were for it, but the Orthodox Church still held sway over a large portion of the population. Strickland points to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, in which he combined two Russian melodies: the imperial anthem, “God keep the Tsar,” and the Orthodox hymn for the Elevation of the Cross, “Oh Lord, Save Thy People.”
In the end, with the Marseillaise introduced, representing France and in battle with the Tsar, it is the Tsar who is victorious, marked by the booming cannons. Thus, giving some indication of the mood of the elevated classes.
Tsar Nicholas II is introduced, the last Russian tsar. Various missteps internally, and struggles with the modernizing forces, would lead to a return to some form of Eastern Orthodoxy, an Old Christendom. The tsar would make pilgrimages and build cathedrals and churches at a phenomenal rate. Alas, this tsar was unable to stem the tide – either within Russia, or externally, in Europe’s march to war.
France, in the face of its defeat in 1871, had one foreign policy objective: revenge over Germany. Meanwhile, Austria did not come to Russia’s aid when France and Britain invaded Crimea – despite just six years earlier, Russia having aided Austria in putting down the Hungarian Uprising. Now Austria had its sights in the Balkan Peninsula – Serbia. And next came the gunman who shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June, 1914.
Kaiser Wilhelm offered Austria a blank check of military support in dealing with this assassination. The shelling of Belgrade began, Russia mobilized, Paris was thrilled. When Germany declared war on Belgium, England came to action.
We know the story of the war, and of the Christmas Truce with which this post opened. The war would end four years later, after 20 million dead. The capitalist economies were exhausted, the socialists were ashamed, and the liberals were discredited.
As Jacques Barzun put it: this war was the Suicide of the West.
Germany would collapse, in the wake of the war and an imposed treaty deemed rather unfair to the party which surrendered under the not unreasonable expectations of fair treatment. Fertile ground for a new leader. Then there is Russia, fertile ground for revolution – but ground that, in many ways, was prepared by the western powers and by Russia’s own elite.
In the early years of this blog, I devoted much time to the buildup of the two world wars of the last century, here and here. In Strickland’s narrative, he seems to be implying some connection of the loss of the western vision of Paradise to the tragedy of this war. Maybe. But man has used any and every pretext for war throughout history.
Further, the narrative places almost all of the blame for the war on Germany; this reading does not accord to the facts. But this is not such a concern for me, as Strickland, in his sweeping review of 2,000 years, cannot be expert on every detail, nor present every detail. He isn’t writing a history of war, but a history of Western Christendom from the viewpoint of an Eastern Orthodox priest.
In his next volume, which is the fourth and last volume in the series, he will write of the west’s nihilism. When the elites choose to fight wars that teach the common man that life is meaningless, it seems reasonable for the common man to conclude that life is meaningless.
It is this nihilism that has eaten away at the west, and it is this nihilism that lies in the cultural and societal valley of death through which we are travelling.