The Long View 2007-04-02: Saecula, Bismarck & Lincoln, House of Lords

The acclimation of the Kaiser in the Hall of Mirrors  Von Anton von Werner - Museen Nord / Bismarck Museum: Picture, Gemeinfrei,

The acclimation of the Kaiser in the Hall of Mirrors

Von Anton von Werner - Museen Nord / Bismarck Museum: Picture, Gemeinfrei,

The 1860s were a peculiar decade. You saw the US Civil War, the formation wars of the German Empire, the War of the Triple Alliance in South America that killed something like 70% of all men in Paraguay, and the Taiping Rebellion in China that killed something like 15%-20% of the population.

Saecula, Bismarck & Lincoln, House of Lords

Sometimes, after the world ends, people prefer not to mention the fact, or so we may gather from this comment by David Warren:

The question, at what precise moment did Western Civilization capsize, continues to interest me. ...For long I’ve mentioned August 10th, 1969, as my own estimate for the date of the “great rotation.” ...The proof came to hand, recently, when a friend since early childhood sent me the link to a website where my high school yearbooks were stored: including the entire contents for my Grade IX year of 1967-68, and ditto for my drop-out year of 1969-70. ...The difference is dramatic. The teachers in the earlier yearbook are, when male, invariably in boring suits with narrow ties; and when female, regardless of age, dressed as school marms. The kids themselves, though not uniformed, are almost uniformly wholesome-looking. ...Just two years later, and the teachers are a mess...All these changes happened (not quite literally) overnight. Yet within a year or two, nobody could remember that anything had ever been any different. ....Well, I was kidding about the date. The poet Philip Larkin said the annus mirabilis was 1963.

I have high-school year books from the same period as David Warren, and yes, there is a boundary layer in the 1970 year book, as blatant as a boundary layer of extraterrestrial isotopes in the geological strata that mark the extinction of the dinosaurs. In any case, this mention of a Year of the Great Change inevitably brings to mind Virginia Woolf's famous remark that human nature changed in 1910. However, if we are to believe Louis Menand, writing in The New Yorker, this is one of the famous sayings that were never quite said, or at least not in the way that we recall:

What she wrote was "On or about December 1910 human character changed." The sentence appears in an essay called "Character in Fiction," which attacks the realist novelists of the time for treating character as entirely a product of outer circumstance—of environment and social class. These novelists look at people's clothes, their jobs, their houses, Woolf says, "but never . . . at life, never at human nature." Modernist fiction, on the other hand, because it presents character from the inside, shows how persistent personality is, and how impervious to circumstance.

Of course, the question of the definition of the saeculum in the 20th century was answered conclusively in R. A. Lafferty's The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeney, but that's another story.

* * *

Speaking of saecula, regular readers of this site will be aware that I have argued that the period 1860-1945 is an intelligible unit in Western history: in a mere lifetime, the fortunes of the state and the people became coincident. I mention this now because I was searching Google Video over the weekend, and I came across this biopic of Otto von Bismarck. It's a black-and-white film, made in Germany in 1940; the star is Paul Hartmann. There are no dubbing or subtitles. My German is such that I could follow about a third of the dialogue.

I gather that this film is not regarded as one of the Nazi era's better efforts, but it is not bad for a biopic that was made at government behest. The film does make Bismarck's policies and career more similar to Hitler's than they actually were, but the only overt Nazi influence I could detect was that the film went out of its way to identify a would-be assassin of Bismarck as an English Jew. The film takes the story only to the declaration of German Empire in 1871. I suspect we have all seen this painting of the acclamation of the new Kaiser in the Hall or Mirrors at Versailles. Well, this film staged it.

You can't fault the production details, but there seem to have been some constraints on the producers' resources. The story required crowd scenes and battles scenes, and the film duly presents them, but with an economy of personnel. If we see a line of soldiers, for instance, they will always be shown through trees, marching around a corner, the better to disguise the fact there were not very many of them. The compensation is the fine interiors and the location-scenes at Potsdam and Vienna. The better to illustrate the depravity of the French, the members of the French government are usually shown attending elaborate parties. They seem a merry lot. Napoleon III's mustache is the real star of the film.

The contemporaries of the American Civil War and of the German unification wars of 1860s were aware that they were in some sense analogous events. I find it odd, though, as I search around the Internet, that there seem to be few detailed comparisons of Lincoln and Bismarck. The Theosophists are on the case: in their interpretation, Bismarck and Lincoln were representatives of the Black Lodge and the White Lodge respectively. Dualism is always entertaining, but rarely helpful. Whatever his faults, Bismarck was not one of the villains of history; and though Lincoln may have been one of the heroes, he was history incarnate at its most catastrophic.

* * *

Of course, it might be simpler to damn them both, which is what Adam Young, a follower of Ludwig von Mises, does in the essay Lincoln and Bismarck: Enemies of Liberalism:

"...Abraham Lincoln and Otto von Bismarck--should be viewed as allied together in the common cause of destroying the principles of classical liberalism. Both Lincoln and Bismarck followed the course that Mises rightly named after Bismarck.

It shouldn't be surprising that the actions of two despots would closely parallel each other. The activities involved in centralizing power would necessarily involve similar means to that end--chiefly, war, dictatorship, and deception.

Both Lincoln and Bismarck began their careers laboring in their respective wildernesses in pursuit of their twin goals: the consolidation of their general federations into a centralized regime of privilege and the destruction of free trade and other classical liberal ideas. And both Lincoln and Bismarck would found their power on the slave labor of conscript armies.

So, Slavery is Liberalism; but weren't the Draka protectionists?

* * *

Speaking of the enemies of classical liberalism, Bruce Ackerman is seriously missing the point of reforming the House of Lords in his article, Second Chambers, which appears in the London review of books March 8, 2007. The reform of the British House of Lords, like the rules of cricket, is one of those things that foreigners will go to quite a lot of trouble not to have to hear about. The gist of it is that the Blair Government has abandoned the hereditary principle as the definition of the membership of the Upper House of parliament and now finds itself stuck with finding a way to select new members that will ensure that neither House ever acts like an independent legislature. Ackerman shares this dread: [I]t seems wiser to build on the best traditions of the current House of Lords, and create an appointed assembly which draws broadly on the wisdom and experience of proven leaders from political and civil society.

Once this fundamental point is recognized, it might be possible to reintroduce the democratic principle as a minor theme without doing harm.

"Democracy as a minor theme that does no harm": that is the philosophy that keeps the government of the European Union from ever becoming entirely legitimate in the eyes of its citizens. Is it really a good idea to pump the same post-democratic embalming fluid into the British Constitution?

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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