February 08, 2013

The Captain of Kopenich

On Tuesday I went to a play at the National Theatre with some friends- an adaptation of a German classic the Captain of Kopenich.

We opened at a prison with all the men (disrespectfully) listening to an old warden recounting stories about Sedan and the victory of the Prussians over the French. One of the prisoners to be released that day- Voigt- has no papers to be released with and therefore no legal personality in outside society. Those two sentences set up what is interesting about the Captain of Kopenich- as adopted at the National at the moment- on the one hand the cult of reminiscence and the military, on the other the man who has no name and therefore no chance within society. That is until he, by chance, comes across the uniform of a captain within the Germany army, masquerades as said Captain to get a passport, fails and eventually only succeeds in doing so by... you'll have to watch the play to find out but the realisation of his plan is amusing.

The point of the play seems to be specific to its time. The play is set by the director as though it was the 1930s in Germany. Great displays that resemble the silent film Metropolis are set up behind the set. You can see and feel the atmosphere of pre-war jingoism: we are off to fight the French at every opportunity. Perhaps its just what I've been reading recently, but there is a certain poignancy about those scenes- if the stress on Prussian militarism plays a bit much to type and prejudice. The point though is well made. Germany in 1910 and in 1930 was a heavy militarised society. Something of that cult of the military went into what happened in 1914. Jonathan Steinberg argues as much in his book about Bismark: so do Chris Clark and Norman Stone in their books which I have written about on this blog. The cult of the military was important to Germany: Prussia, founded as an army with a country attached, had founded the new German empire and founded it through military success.

The second dilemma is also true and perhaps even more interesting. Voigt has no papers and therefore no personality. The play doesn't really play with this as an idea enough. The play is set in 1910 when two things drive the creation of papers for people (don't forget that until 1914 most European states did not have passports). The first thing was conscription- the Boer war in Britain revealed that the British poor were just unable to fight for example. The second related phenomenon was the welfare state. To have either conscription or the welfare state you need to know who your citizens are. Taking England as an example, in the 18th Century noone knew how many Englishmen there were- quite simply because services were administered by parishes. As long as the clergyman or local notable knew who was who: it didn't matter what Whitehall thought. In a world with conscription and welfare, Whitehall and its equivalents have to know who people are. Voigt's dilemma is a real one but it is a much more modern one than the director gave it credit for: and its a German one for Bismark's welfare state was amongst the most advanced in Europe.

These are interesting ideas but the play at the National disappointed me because it did not really take them further- and the points it did make- gestures towards 1914 and the Nazis were too broad. Much of the first half of this Captain was made up of broad humour and platitude- both of which left me tired and grumpy. I confess at the interval I walked out in a mood, wondering if I should walk back in. The second half focussing on the military issue was much better but still just played either issue for laughs: both issues have more to them than the play revealed- a pity as it was based on a real case and the original text is supposed to be a classic (no doubt this was heavily adapted).

February 05, 2013

Ancient Israel

I'm fascinated by ancient Israel- not for religious reasons but because for religious reasons documents have survived from a very ancient civilisation and from some quite interesting people in that civilisation.  William Dever's book on the origins of Israel is really interesting, not primarily because of its theological content. It basically argues that one story in the Bible (the Exodus story) is less likely to be true than another story in the Bible (Judges) when it comes to explaining who were the Ancient Israelites. That's interesting because it sheds light on a question that I think is important. If we exclude for a  moment theological explanations about why the idea of monotheism arose, and leave those as beyond the bounds of this article: we are still left trying to account for why monotheism arose and what the inspiration for the religious literature of the Bible was in historical terms.

Dever's account basically argues that the people we call Israelites- he calls them proto-Israelites- were Canaanites. If you imagine the ancient world in the second millennia BC- you are imagining a world that has been hit by economic crisis. We know that many of the great ancient states of that era were disturbed: Egypt was invaded by mysterious 'sea peoples', the Myceneans vanished never again to rise. Dever posits that all this stuff had an impact on Canaan. Falling farm yields, rising prices, rising inequality: these are all the attributes of crisis. And in letters from the Kings of Canaan to the Egyptians we can see these crises impacting on Canaan in those ways.

So the story he puts together goes like this. Groups of people in the Canaanite towns became frustrated and irritated and moved. They moved up into the hills around the coastal areas- into the hills near Jerusalem and began farming there. They elected their own chiefs. These chiefs fought with the Canaanite states below. He suggests this makes sense of the archaeological evidence which describes an increase in population in this hill country (and shows no record of the kinds of conquest that Joshua is said to have made)- and of Egyptian evidence which names Israel as the hill country. He devotes a lot of time to proving this- and I don't have either the expertise or the patience to rehearse the argument.

The implications though are really fascinating. Firstly they suggest that the Bible's attitudes to wealth and poverty are very much the attitudes of peasant farmers who were faced with inequality and mounting debt. The problem of debt slavery- so intrinsic to later societies right up until and beyond colonial Africa- is not unknown in the Bible and reflects this kind of societal transformation. Secondly the Bible's model of statehood must be influenced by this early history: so the Book of Judges becomes a very interesting text because it shows a movement from poverty and chieftenship to Kingship.

February 03, 2013

Italy and the First World War

In 1924, Miroslav Skalajkovic, the former political head of the Serb Foreign Ministry, said of the Italian invasion of Tripoli in 1911, 'all subsequent events [including the First World War] are nothing more than the evolution of that first aggression'.

Both Norman Stone and Chris Clark argue that the Italian invasion of Libya was the starting gun for the first world war. The reason is that the First World War started in the Balkans- as everyone knows. A Serb assassin's bullet was its first real shot. The roots of that moment though go back to Italy. Italy's invasion of Libya demonstrated the weakness of the Ottoman authorities- furthermore they demonstrated that Britain, Turkey's great power guarantor, no longer insisted upon Turkish independence. Sir Edward Grey, then the British Foreign Secretary, encouraged the Italians to attack Libya. What's interesting about this attack is that it starts the chain of events leading to World War One- because the Balkan states saw the Italian victory as the announcement that they too could start to prey on Turkey. It also was the first moment at which Arab nationalism- in the resistance to Italian forces- becomes an important factor in global affairs.

Its worth thinking about the Italian invasion though. The First World War partly came out of the weaknesses of the European power system- and in particular its two weakest states. The policy of Britain and France was effectively in 1914 that Austria had no right to exert its influence over Serbia after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. The Italian invasion was a consequence of the presumed weakness of the sick man of Europe. And this presumed weakness lent Italian and Russian policy makers a sense of urgency: if they did not strike quickly then another power would seize what they wanted. In 1912 for example during the Balkan war, Russia became terrified that Bulgaria might seize Constantinople- the long term Russian ambition. Russian policy makers during the period just before World War One were seeking to recreate the Balkans as an arena of little brother Slav states that they could sponsor- as opposed to independent actors.

Weakness and fear were main drivers in what happened in World War One. Clark disagrees with the thesis that Germany sponsored the war because of a terror about Russian power- the thesis that Stone supports. But paranoia is to be found in all European states: there were German generals who were scared about Russia, Britain feared Russian incursions on its Asiatic empire, France of course feared Germany and feared that Russia might in the end not need a French alliance for its ambitions to be fulfilled. The coming power of Russia destablised the European balance of power- but it is the interraction between that fear and the weakness of other powers that drives the action in World War One. The weakness of Austria and the Ottomans presented the opportunity for people to realise their fears of conquest: Russian or German domination in Vienna and Constantinople would it was feared lead to the enslavement of Europe to either Berlin or St Petersburg.

This helps explain I think something which I'd not thought about but which Clark points out is a paradox. The First World War began about the Balkans and its first subsidiary wars happened in Libya and in the Balkans but it was on the Western and Eastern Fronts that the war happened. The war did not take place between Italy and Serbia, Austria and Turkey but between Russia, France, Britain and Germany.


Incidentally apologies for not publishing some comments over the summer- a long hiatus that was influenced primarily by stuff happening off line- but I really do apologise!