Nationalism, Patriotism, and the Press

“Elements of the Polish far-right . . .”

“The far-right German political party, Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) . . .”

“Concerns about the appearance of far-right protesters led the French government to . . .”

“Right-wing extreamists in the US are known for . . .”

What, exactly, do the reporters and commentators mean by “far right” and “right wing?” It’s hard to know, because you have to know the political leanings of the reporters, of the dominant elements in the government of the country being discussed, and something about the background of the event being decried, encouraged, or whatever. To me, if you are marching with a banner that has the Hakenkreutz under the international “NO” marking, and the Hammer and Sickle under the same NO, with your national crest in the middle, you are not Far Right. You are nationalist, firmly so, but not “Far evil fascistic white-supremacist antiSemitic Right.” Which is what the breathless journalism tried to claim.

Setting aside who inspired whom, and that Fascism died with either Mussolini or Franco (take your pick), the default in the media has lapsed to, “They are not actively Socialist/Progressive/Communist. Must be Eeeeeevil Far Right.” Yawn.

The terms right and left in politics owe their birth, like so many other bad ideas, to the French Revolution, namely the phase generally knows as The Terror. The legislative branch of the revolutionary government was centered on the speaker’s podium, with “the Mountain” the bulk of legislators in the center, the Jacobins and their allies to the left of the speaker (his left hand) and the Girondins and their allies to the right of the speaker. Now, all of these people were radical, but the Jacobins became much more pro-government, pro-total control, pro-erase history than the Girondins had a chance to become.

The Germans, being Teutonic and having the seat of their government in Berlin, seat the Communist/hard Left party members on . . . the left as you face the seats, and the Conservative-by-German-standards party members on the right. So the Communists and AfD or FDP glare across at each other.

In the US? No one knows what far-right means, other than “not a member of the Democratic, Green, or Socialist parties.” I think it means evil Alex Jones fans who own black plastic firearms, beat women, burn crosses at night, drive lifted pickups, drink the wrong kind of beer and coffee, and want to take over the world so they can beat up on everyone and restore the world o Birth of the Nation. But I could be wrong.

Short-hand is short, it doesn’t require thought. Alas, it also starts to inspire the targets of the short-hand to think, “Hmmm, why not live down to their expectations?” And responses in kind from the other side of the cultural aisle. Sort of like an acidic comment I heard to the effect that the difference between German skinheads [right, maybe] and German anarchists [hard left, maybe] was the amount of hair on the head.

If someone calls protesters marching with a “No NSDAP” sign “right wing,” well, all that shows is ignorance. And not on the part of the protesters.

“Far-right protestors called for the return of Western Civilization classes in public schools and universities.”


A Dream that Came True

When I was 10-20 or so, I was hooked on unicorns. Unicorn books, china and glass unicorns, unicorn stickers, unicorns in art . . . It was probably the only “normal” thing about me, until the fad for all-things-unicorn passed but I kept collecting them and reading about them. Oops.

When I was still in high school, one of the adult choirs I sang with went to New York to perform at Lincoln Center (late 1980s.) Mom and I took one day and hopped on the bus (educational) and went from one end of Manhattan Island to the other to visit the Cloisters Museum. The Cloisters is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum. In 1913 George Grey Barnard, John D. Rockefeller, J.P Morgan, and a few other guys bought four French church cloisters and moved them to New York. And added appropriate art, furnishings, and so on. When the museum opened in 1938, it became the home of the Met Museum’s medieval art and artifacts collection (not that the main location lacks medieval art, but this is more in situ.)

Why the Cloisters? The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry series. And the rest of the stuff, but it was the tapestries that I desperately wanted to see. And so we did. They were wonderful – as was the rest of the museum.

Fast forward to 2012 or so. Mom, Dad and I were wrapping up a tour of the highlights of France. It ended in Paris – which was miserably hot. As in the 90s. Street temps in the 100s. Not fun. But, one morning we skipped the official whatever and went across the Seine to the Muse´de Cluny. This is an old Cluniac monastery and church that is now a medieval art and artifacts museum. Why the Cluny? Well, because it had old stuff, in an old setting. And because of the Unicorn Tapestries. These are “The Five Senses,” the ones with the unicorn and lion holding standards, and the lady and her servant hearing, smelling, looking, and so on. We got shooed out of one gallery because the guard was going on break (ah, France), and hurried into the tapestry gallery. We were the only ones there.

Remove the people and you see what I saw.

You don’t walk straight into the gallery, but around a wall. The space is dimly lit and cool, in order to preserve the tapestries. They are displayed in a semi-circle, so you can stop and look at each one without blocking other people’s view.

I walked around the partition wall, saw the singing colors and designs, and wept. Tears rolled down my face as I stood there, truly awe filled. The weavings were so beautiful! So perfect! Everything I’d every hoped to see existed before my eyes. As I type this, I feel the awe once more, the sense of wonder. It wasn’t sacred wonder, like I’ve felt in some churches, or when worship does everything it should but so rarely does. No, this was . . . an echo? Something in me resonating with the art, like a perfectly tuned musical chord raising a harmonic. The tapestries are secular, not sacred, works, but something about them . . . My heart truly overflowed with joy. Not happiness, but joy, the deeper emotion.

The rest of the museum was quite good, and I learned a great deal. Of the museums I saw in Paris, I’d say I liked the Art of Northern Europe part of the Louvre, then the Cluny, then the Southern European section of the Louvre, in that order. I didn’t get to the Impressionist museum or the military history museum.

“Sight” Image source here:

Reading along the Danube

Since I can’t go to one of my favorite parts of the world, I’m digging out all the books I bought about it but never got around to either finishing, or in a few cases starting. That most of them are auf Deutsch helps kick me out of my usual habits as well, and stretches the Little Grey Cells.

The first one I started is a “popular” summary of post-Roman settlement in Roman sites along the Danube, from Caernuntum (downstream of Vienna) up to the mouth of the Enns River. I put popular in quotes because although it is a summary of a lot of archaeological and historical work, the author expects readers to know the basics of Roman and Dark Ages/Late Antiquity history and of archaeology. It provides an excellent summary of “what happened after Rome left?” Or more specifically, after the official presence of the Roman Army along the Limes ended after AD 488 CE.

Thanks to Gibbon and other historians, English-language histories of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire left readers with the assumption that after Odoacer removed Romulus Augustulus from the imperial throne in 476, people abandoned everything, rolled up the sidewalks, and reverted to Neolithic levels of material and intellectual culture, outside of a few tiny, trembling pockets of civilization. Per Gibbon et al, Western Europe remained in the dark until the 1000s, and even then, well, it wasn’t as good until after 1500 when the Renaissance and the Return of the Classics re-lit the lamp of civilization. “Gothic” as in medieval was, ahem, excess emotion and primitives gawping at the simple grandeur that had been Rome and Greece. *Sniff of disdain*

If your only sources are written documents, and most of those that are not religious guides or things like herbals and devotional works are laments for “how things were back in the Good Old Days before the barbarians besieged my monastery,” or “Rome’s terrible sins let in the barbarians. Discuss,” well, your view of the period between 410 and 800 is going to be rather skewed. Especially if you ignore the Byzantine Empire, which English writers tended to do (too chaotic, too decadent, too far away.) There are not that many written sources from the Dark Ages/Late Antiquity unless you really start digging in monasteries, or digging in Medieval ruins and read the inscriptions. Which no one did until the 1950s (!) No one was interested in post-Roman stuff. Now, credit where it is due, archaeologists didn’t have a lot of the tools and techniques that have made so much post-Roman work possible, and digging under cities tends to be expensive and frowned upon by the neighbors. Especially if it means tearing up streets and sewers. Or going through people’s basements.

Which is partly why historians missed the clues that people had not vanished, and neither had Roman places and cities. Some were abandoned, true, because without Rome’s strength, and because of a major climate downturn, they were no longer safely habitable. Others were too open, and on the line of march for, oh, almost every Germanic, Slavic, and Steppe group that wandered through Europe between 410 and 1200. Others were rebuilt but with wattle and daub, not stone (London), and that doesn’t last the way stone does. Or people incorporated the Roman stuff into medieval stuff, or built over it, and the academics didn’t know what happened to sit under this town, that palace, or the church over there. Unless you go hunting spolia and know what to look for. Roman sites made great quarries for structural stone and column capitals once people got to that point. (I love strolling along and going, “Hey, that’s a Roman grave marker tucked into the church wall. Oh look, there’s part of a mile stone. Cool.”

The Danube valley has been occupied by humans since the Paleolithic. It’s one of very few east-west communication routes, and provides a route between the Alps, the Bohemian Massif, and the Carpathians. Caernuntum was the point where the Amber Road, the trade route from the Baltic to the Med, crossed the river. Wels was another crossing point. Vienna marks the eastern tip of the Alps (the Vienna Woods are foothills of the Alps.) Rome used it as a border north-south (the Limes) and drew provincial borders from it. To this day, several of the political and episcopal divisions in the area are Roman. They lasted through: Bavarians, Slavs, Avars, Franks, Magyars, the Babenbugs, and the Habsburgs. Roman ruins appear in basements, were incorporated into city walls and gates, provided material for churches and castles, remained in pastures until the late 1800s, and so on. In two cases, people moved out of the city or military town completely, rebuilding higher or back from the hazards of the river. Archaeologist love those locations, because they don’t have to worry about digging under towns, or trying to reconstruct where the town and the Roman town diverged. Vienna kept Vindobona’s street plan and wall outline, as readers have heard me rhapsodizing over far too often. 🙂

The more I learn about the period of 410-1100, the more fascinating it becomes, and the more I want to read and then explore.

Old Patterns of the Mind

I was chatting with someone at the range (after we’d both finished and were outside the “eyes and ears* or else” area) about shooting when tired and achy, and why we needed to do it. That wandered around and around to talking about Eastern and Central Europe and the past six years or so, personal safety, and how different countries have responded to the “migrant crisis” as it is delicately phrased. The other party was aware of some of the mess and how Eastern Europe has been, let us say, firm about certain things.

Which led my mind to thinking about old borders and administrations and patterns that return. Until I read Andrew Wheatcroft’s book about the events of 1682-1700, I had never thought about how the constant threat from the Ottomans, be it real or perceived, shaped Habsburg thinking and their responses to things. I also had taken for granted that the Holy Roman Empire of the Germany Nation (HRE 2.0) had been outmoded, useless, and had kept Germany from accomplishing anything until after 1871. If you shift your view point from Berlin to Vienna, things change a little, and readers know I incline toward the Vienna-centric approach to the HRE 2.0. It just makes sense, especially when you start asking questions like, “If it was so useless, why didn’t it disappear earlier, like the 1500s, or especially after 1648?”

But it is the Habsburg/Polish/Hungarian approach to “dangers from the East” that I’ve been chewing on recently. You can argue that it is more about “have the EU benefits without accepting the responsibilities and policies,” and “they’re behind the times and insular and that’s a very bad thing compared to Germany, Belgium, and France.” I’m more curious as to “why has everyone reverted so quickly?” I suspect there are a couple of reasons, some of which don’t apply to all the various countries equally.

The oldest is that danger came from the east. Mongols, Russians, Ottomans, Russians, Ottomans . . . They posed greater threats over the long sweep of time than did the German-speaking peoples to the west. Even at their worst, the German-speaking invaders were recognizably Western in terms of religion and cultural influences. They also didn’t enslave people like the Ottomans did. Keep in mind, we’re talking the 1200s on. The Twentieth Century . . . Is a bit of an anomaly thanks to totalitarianism, but the Soviet Union lived down to the expectations of those who recalled what Imperial Russia had done in the 1800s-1917. So Poland, Hungary, Austria, the Czech and Slovak lands, Croatia, all had a common long cultural assumption that trouble came from the east and south, and that if they didn’t work together at least on occasion, trouble tended to win. That’s not how the political leaders would phrase it, of course, and until 2016 or so it wasn’t a major concern, although everyone kept a weather eye on Russia just out of habit.

The living memory is, of course, Russia in the form of the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain. Russia wants a friendly buffer zone between them and . . . everyone else. Teutonic knights, then Poland (early 1600s), then Sweden, then Napoleon, then Imperial and Nazi Germany, then NATO. How Russia deals with its neighbors is not always taken as “friendly,” especially after 1918. People remember what Soviet domination was like before 1989, and they don’t like some of the EU policies that seem to echo the USSR. It doesn’t help that certain EU politicians (like those elsewhere) slide into “do it my way or else” language. The “or else” of the USSR was rather too well known. The “or else” of Brussels and Berlin? Not quite as memorable thus far.

The point being, there’s nothing like an outside irritation to get people to drop differences and work together, especially if those people have a common history of “us vs them.” No, the Hungarians don’t love Austrians, and Croats and Slovaks are not racing to join a Greater Hungary. Poland is Poland, and has a long memory, although they seem to consider the Habsburg occupation the lesser of three evils. So when lots and lots of people move into Europe (or are moved into Europe), and those people do not seem interested in adopting Western culture and priorities, old ties snap into place. The old patterns reemerge, not identical, not exact, but . . . The border strip between the HRE 2.0 and Russia and the Ottomans seems to be reverting a bit to “us against the barbarians.”

I see some of it in the US, although not as clearly because we are such a hodge-podge, and because we do not share the blood-and-soil ties to place and culture that Europeans have. We’re based on ideas, and like-minded people seem to be coalescing, intensifying their attitudes and connections, and drawing cultural lines. “These ideas are Us. Those ideas are Not Us. They may just be mistaken, or they may be wrong, or even evil, but they are Not Us. Change your ideas and you’re welcome to join Us.”

History never repeats (although some students do repeat history [or English, or Biology 101, or . . . ]). But patterns seem to remain, because people are people, and patterns are comfortable and familiar. As a historian and writer, the patterns are fascinating, even if I’d prefer not to live in Interesting Times.

*Eye and ear protection is required past a certain point. It’s easier to stop short, get organized, put on safety glasses and ear protection et cetera, then proceed. And safer, because I guarantee you that if you wait to get close to the firing line, the person in the next space over will be shooting something large and loud. The Range Safety Officer on duty will also get loud, even if he or she is not large.

Pushes and Pulls

Why do groups of people relocate, especially in pre-modern times? There’s always a reason for groups to move. Individuals might wander on a whim, be it wanderlust, the desire to escape relatives, or just to see if the grass really is greener “over there.” But when cultures and tribes up sticks and head out, there’s always a push and a pull. One of the things I’m starting to tease apart when I look at the big-picture history of Europe and Southwest Asia is the pushes and pulls behind population shifts. “The Huns were moving, so these other people moved.” OK, why did the Huns move? For a long time we didn’t know, because the written records didn’t include interviews with various historical characters or groups. However, in the past forty years or so, environmental history has provided a few new reasons for pushes, at least.

Keep in mind, weather and landscape are not deterministic. That is, very, very rarely can you point to one climatic event or geological thing and say, “This is why the Seljuk Turks left Central Asia” or “this is why the Anasazi left the area to become [various tribal groups].” Sometimes you have to pull together bits and pieces from archaeology, geology, palynology and tree ring and stalagmite studies, epigraphy, business records, government reports (if they exist), and look for patterns, then try to sort out what caused the pattern. And sometimes you bring a new approach to old data and say, “Hey, you know, I wonder if the reason for [thing] could be related to [other thing waaaaay the heck over here]?” You know, like the rash of very large range fires in the late 1800s in the Texas Panhandle being related to a combination of wetter weather and far fewer grazers keeping the lawn clipped. So there’s a lot more grass, in more places, so if it dries out and a spark gets tossed by something, well, you get Interstate Grass Fires of Unusual Size.

So, pushes and pulls. In the late AD 900s – early 1000s CE, while western Europe was basking in the Medieval Warm Period and starting to build giant cathedrals, hold enormous trade fairs, and enjoy the good weather, Egypt, eastern North Africa, and as far east as Afghanistan started with drought, then a series of cold years that led to famine, disease, civil unrest, attacks by nomadic peoples (Bedouin) on cities, and eventually the Seljuk Turks moving out of the Steppes into Southwest Asia. Their behavior triggered the Southern Crusades. This pattern also put pressure on the Byzantine Empire and explains the renewed push by the Arabs and Persians against the Byzantine borders, further weakening them.

The push for the Seljuks was the terrible cold weather that caused the grass to die, and their animals as well, forcing them to relocate. The pull was a political vacuum in Mesopotamia and warmer weather with better forage conditions. The Byzantines were not in a good position to chase anyone out of the region at that point, neither were the Fatimids of Egypt, so the Seljuks stayed, and eventually helped pull the Ottomans out of the Pontic Steppe, and we all know what happened then.*

Back up five hundred years or so, and we see something similar in Northern Europe. Why were the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Burgundians, Huns, Bulgars, Avars, Franks, and Vandals all moving west? Dry weather in the Eurasian Steppes was pushing them, possibly an outbreak of plague as well, and the resources and relative disorganization of the Roman Empire (both halves) provided a pull. Once the Western Empire could no longer defend against eastern pressure, the Germanic and Slavic people flowed in, driven now by cold and dry or cold and wet episodes farther east. After whatever happened in the early 500s (possibly huuuuuge volcanic eruption where the Sunda Strait now sits), the weather turned very bad in Europe, forcing further population shifts (the push) into milder or at least not-as-bad areas (the pull). Plague and hunger dropped the population in some areas, opening space for migration (Britain, possibly). Come the 800s, things are improving in the West, and too many young men in Scandinavia need a job, so they start trading and Viking. Drought in the eastern steppe pushes the Magyars, who push others, who appear in the western historical records as “barbarian nomads.” Charlemagne got to deal with them, and with the Saxons, and a few early Vikings.

North America shows something similar but in the 1300s. The Little Ice Age caused major drought in the American Southwest and affected weather in the central part of the continent as well. At the same time, the people of the Cahokia cultural complex found themselves having problems, partly because of deforestation. They shifted away from the large-centrally-managed culture and back to smaller, scattered groups, eventually moving south and east. This pushed other peoples, who pushed more people, and so on.

China in the 1600s – Bad weather, bad management, disease outbreaks, civil unrest from all of the above. Nomads moving because of the cold and harsher weather push on the borders, until someone invites a group in to solve the local problem and then leave. They didn’t leave. They became the Qing Dynasty.

Pushes and pulls. They are a lot more complicated than what I’ve sketched above, because I’m just thinking about some of the easy to spot episodes, the biiiiig ones that historians can point to and say, “See, this is what I’m talking about.” One of my very long-term projects is looking at the pushes and pulls in Central and Southeastern Europe, and comparing those patterns and responses to borderlands elsewhere. There are some similarities — we’re talking about humans, after all — and echoes, but also differences.

*”Prinz Eugen and Jan Sobieski, if you can hear this announcement please pick up the white courtesy phone for a message, Prinz Eugen and King Jan Sobieski . . . ”

What are You?

No, not “a fish,” or “irritated.” I will assume that most of my readers are mammals, or can pass for mammals. How do you define yourself culturally or in terms of Nation? In the US, this is a question that causes much puzzlement, perhaps amusement, or if you ask the wrong person, a long lecture about identity and why one dare not assume such a thing about a different person. Elsewhere, you will get a clear answer, perhaps. Then, if you go farther and ask “Why are you a/an X?” the reply might take hours of history to understand.

Yes, my mind has drifted into Central Europe again. Part of it is writing related, part is not writing related, and part is because I need a vacation and Medieval Europe seems pretty mellow compared to here and now. (Heck, in some ways the Volkerwanderung seems mellow compared to here and now.) The Middle Ages, AD 800 CE to 1500 or so, is the period when us vs. them expanded past tribe to fellow-religionists, and then to the idea of the Nation, the Volk, the People, a larger-scale “us.” States such as Poland-Lithuania, Hungary, and Bohemia became recognized political and economic units, and the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nations provided a common government*, economic stability (sort of), and a mediating power in much of Central Europe.

How do you define “Central Europe?” How do you define “Polish,” or “Hungarian,” or for a real challenge, “German?” YOu can use geography, as somewhere between the Urals and Atlantic Ocean, except then a lot of Russia is included, and everyone agrees that Russia is not Central Europe. So between the Atlantic and the Pripet Marshes? What about the Dnieper? Most people would agree on Germany, Poland, Hungary, Austria, the Czech and Slovak lands, and possible/probably Croatia. So the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, Hungary,** and Poland.

All these countries are Western Christian – Roman Catholic, Calvinist, Lutheran, Uniate, Hussite, or Anabaptist – or Jewish (not as common as in the past). All look west for culture and political ideas, more toward Rome-as-Imagined than to Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire. The historian Lonnie R. Johnson adds multi-national empires (multi-ethnic), opposition to the Ottomans, and lagging behind western Europe after the Renaissance. (Johnson, Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbors, Friends). You can quibble the details, but there’s a core there that works very well with what I’ve read and observed over the years. Poles and Hungarians most certainly look west, not east, for their history and culture, even if they look west warily. Germany post 1700 is suspect, to put it mildly, and the Poles traditionally tried to avoid getting entangled in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Hungary likewise. Bohemia got in, then tried to get out (or at least to gain more independence within the Empire once the Habsburgs took over. 1620 took care of that for, oh 300 years give or take.)

Language works to define Pole, Czech, Slovak, and Hungarian, but Austrians and Germans all speak German, and there are differences in the culture and attitudes of the various parts of Austria and Germany. Someone from Hamburg is rather different from a Styrian. And the Swiss speak German, some of them, even if the Germans and Austrians aver that they can’t read written Swiss, or understand parts of spoken Swiss. But Switzerland is not Central Europe. Hamburg, the Rhineland, and Ruhr are not really Central Europe entirely, if you require Ottoman opposition and lagging behind Western Europe.

I think it comes down to “here’s the general guideline, and we’ll sort out the specifics later.” Sort of like “Hungarian.” Speaks Hungarian, is western Christian (but probably not Lutheran, because Lutheran is German,) or Jewish. Probably lives in or near modern Hungary. Is aware, possibly too aware, of Hungarian history, or a certain understanding of it. Prrrrooooobably no longer swears he or she is a descendant from one of the five founding princes who were the sons of a princess and an eagle, but . . . Poles are Catholic or Jewish or Uniate, not Lutheran, but other flavors of Protestant? Eh, well . . .

There’s a LOT of history in all those definitions and identities. Some of it is documented history, some of it is felt history, some is just understood but not really discussed. For Americans, it seems odd, perhaps anachronistic, downright off-putting perhaps to have the legislature vote to affirm that the Virgin Mary is the Queen of Poland. The US Constitution forbids that. Poland? No problem. Some controversy, but no problem. Ditto Hungary affirming that Mary is the true ruler of Hungary, and that other governments are care-takers. There are deep cultural as well as religious reasons for these choices, and links that go very, very far back, a thousand years back, in the past.

America is an idea and a choice. Central Europe is . . . a wonderful part of the world with too much history to be comfortable, at times. A Romanian writer-associate opined that “You don’t want to live in a place where a lot of history happens.” There’s something to that.

*In the sense that lots of people recognized that it existed, and claimed membership, and at least nominally followed its rules and decrees.

** Hungary claimed Croatia, or vice versa, before 1526, then again after the mid 1700s. Hungary also claimed what is now a chunk of Romania, just to confuse things.