1500 years ago a 12 year old girl near Basel, Switzerland was buried with hundreds of these beads and trinkets. They wouldn’t have had much value then, the area was formerly Roman and the economy still used lots of old Roman coins as currency as well as their own coinage, items like these were strictly for costume jewelry or sewn into garments. The girl probably just liked them and collected them. Basel is on the Rhine, the Danube was not far off, the Rhône only a bit further, and every summer Switzerland was alive with merchants, traders and tinkers who passed back and forth through the Swiss passes bearing all sorts of thinks to sell and swap. The amber would have come all the way from the eastern Baltic and brought to Basel by some network of rivers and trails. Things travelled far back then when wars and plagues didn’t interfere, which, alas, in those dark ages, happened far too often. But still, we can imagine her spreading these treasures out on a skin and picking out shiny pieces to peer through into the fire and see things we don’t see, ghosts and spirits and the souls of the deceased. Those were different times, and the Neolithic imagination wasn’t yet completely purged from the minds of the peoples who came west from the vast plains and mountains of central Asia to sweep away the Roman Empire. Shadows still played on walls and fires flickered with beings we can’t see all around us.
Category Archives: European history
A beautifully limned and muscular Fascism
Finally saw The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie last night. Maggie Smith, gorgeous locations, etc. It seemed a rather nothing story about an incredibly irritating Scottish teacher and her perfect little students. La creme de la creme she called them. She worshipped beauty, art, perfection, punctuality.
It began to get more interesting. A few plot twists and character revelations developed–-lust, weirdness, disturbing intimations of a warped sexuality. Then slowly she revealed a fascination for fascism. First in hints. A mention of Mussolini. A true Roman she told her students. The romantic definition of hero, the Shining Hero, something long since lost to us viewers in war and compromise and threats of nuclear annihilation. Finally she revealed herself as an out and out Fascist sympathizer. She showed the class slides of a holiday in Rome, a plaza full of uniformed Fascisti. She mixed with them, she said. They had excited her. She nearly panted at the memory. She remembered exactly what she’d been wearing. Somehow her own perfect attire had matched their perfect uniforms. That startled me. Fashion and fascism. How her personal Romantic ideal and the massed Fascist Ideal blended perfectly. Their muscularity and her femininity. Her sex, their power. Etc, etc.
Come the Spanish Civil War the man of the hour became Franco. Oh she could go on about Franco. Near to swooning. I felt an automatic revulsion. We forget now that as many westerners supported the Nationalists as supported the Republicans, people like Evelyn Waugh, J.R.R. Tolkien, Salvador Dali, Wyndham Lewis and (of course) Ezra Pound. Even Gertrude Stein. Miss Brodie’s sympathies would not have been so shocking back then. Perhaps not really shocking at all. No more shocking than those enraptured by Stalin, perhaps even less so. Communists promised revolution and purges. Il Duce promised order. Brodie, we are told (by one of her skeptical students), was quite vocal about her sympathies. It became part of her curriculum. The humanities and fascism blending seamlessly. Her creme de la creme becoming perfect little fascists, she hoped.
They didn’t, except for the simple, suggestible one who, swept up in Miss Brodie’s excitement, made for Spain to join her brother fighting for the Nationalists. The poor thing was machine gunned at the French border. Miss Brodie showed little remorse, as the girl had died for the cause, for the new order. A silly eighteen year old girl meeting a glorious death. A heroic death. Hints of ancient Greece. You and I know it was a squalid ugly death, terrifying, an utter waste. In my head I heard her screams. Miss Brodie’s other students, the poor girl’s friends, knew better as well. (Indeed we find out later that the dead girl’s brother was fighting for the Republicans, something that had never occured to Miss Brodie.)
By this point the movie had slowly, subtly turned creepy, a fascinating look into just how high minded intellectuals bought into the Fascist ideology. How Mussolini and then Hitler had so many admirers in England, in Europe, throughout the Western world. And just how insidious a thing it was, this fascism, how it could mix with art and poetry and perfection, co-opt Romantic ideals, send middle class kids off in shiny uniforms to conquer and gas and execute and massacre without compunction, leaving tidy notes of how many were killed that day, how many men, women and children, and the inventory of what they left behind, hats, hair, overcoats, gold teeth.
We think of Nazis as brownshirted thugs, but the SS took the best and the brightest. There were more brilliant minds in the Reichssicherheitshauptamt than ever joined the German resistance, many times more. Fascism in all its forms–-Italian, German, Spanish, Romanian, Hungarian, English, all of it–-was fundamentally an intellectual movement. A middle class movement, rooted in universities. Indeed, deep down it had begun in poetry and art. Italians shocked into a new reality, hard and unyielding, by the lunacy of the Great War. As the old world destroyed itself then, empires fell, monarchs executed, tradition and history tossed out the window, the world seemed divided between the deary proletarian future of Bolshevism or the beautifully limned and muscular Fascism. I can’t fathom the appeal at all, that thing that sent chills up young fascist spine, made the hair stand up on their arms, rushed the blood to the brain and loins. But you can see it in Miss Brodie, in her prime, remembering the musk of young rippling fascists on parade and taking unsaid fantasies with her to bed that night on a Roman holiday.
It took total annihilation to rid the world of Fascism. We lopped them off like a gangrenous limb. We hung the thugs and the intellectuals by the neck until dead or pulled their lifeless heads out of their kitchen ovens. We shot down Hitler Youth in their suicidal charges. We jailed nazi functionaries for years and put Ezra Pound in a cage. The trials were endless and humiliating, The denazification more so. Hitler shot himself in his bunker to avoid Mussolini’s fate dangling from a meat hook. Only Franco, smart enough to stay out of the War, survived the collapse of fascism, isolated and silent. Fascism as a living, growing ideology was dead.
Or so we thought. Some Nazis escaped and helped keep the idea alive in South America. Peron seemed fascinated by fascist demagoguery, Pinochet goose stepped with the best of them. But that was a more Latin American thing, more Franco than Italian, devoid of Nazi racial theory and efficiency, their armies incapable of anything but parades, torture and repression. But it’s the idea of fascism that remained in Europe. Some strangely replicating meme that grew from the wreckage of fascist empires. That weird, warped romance, the thuggish hero, the big black shiny boots. The websites full of hate and purity and uniforms and alternative history, A reich that will rise again. There aren’t many of these new fascists–they’ve come nowhere near to seizing power anywhere–but they are there, vocal and obvious and scary. In milder form they’ve influenced elections in France. In savage form they’ve made headlines in Greece. They’ve infected football crowds in Italy and even, shockingly, held rallies in Moscow complete with placards of Adolf Hitler himself. I ask myself just how warped a Russian must be to idolize the very man who tried to exterminate them.
Now we’re told that nazi sympathizers pitched in and helped depose the old communist regime in Ukraine, much to the delight of Russian propagandists. If so, that would be the first constructive thing that fascists have done since their post war re-emergence. And what does that mean? I wonder if we’ll ever rid ourselves of the romance of fascism, if it will ever go away. Will it take a generation or centuries? Perhaps, like cancer, it’s built into the very DNA of European civilization, and it will never go away. Perhaps it will even come into intellectual fashion again, with Miss Jean Brodies teaching it to the creme de la creme.
Oh, the movie. It was good. It really was. I thought I was going to hate it, but I couldn’t tear myself away. Maggie Smith was splendid, of course. So were several of the girls. And the artist, though his lechery has not aged well since 1969. The scenery was gorgeous. And if the dialog was oh so precious in too many places, perhaps it might not be to a viewer in Great Britain. At least I told myself so. And yes, it’s utterly ridiculous to reduce a movie review to a tangent on fascism. There was much more going on. I certainly missed the point of the story. But I hadn’t really. It’s just that it was Miss Brodie the fascist that bothered me as I watched the movie. And still bothered me this morning as I drank coffee and listened to the rain, bothered me enough to write this. What an oddly horrible world it must have been where teachers taught fascism with art and etiquette and knew in their hearts they were right.
(Originally posted in 2016 on BricksPicks.com as “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”.)
The Lion in Winter
[Just found this, a pretty rough first draft from a while back, but I’ll post it as is.]
A Lion In Winter would be a lot less Lion In Winter without all that beautiful English, which in all likelihood none of the characters personally could actually speak much of, if any. Rather all the soliloquies would have been intoned in a variety of the French languages at the time. Peter O’Toole’s Henry II in Norman (which was the language of the English royal court till Henry IV was raised speaking English a couple centuries later). Katherine Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitaine spoke Poitevin, and Anthony Hopkins’ Richard I in Occitan. I’ve no idea what form of French Geoffrey connived and young John sniveled in. Philip II, I assume, was speaking what eventually became standard French though doubtless he could make himself understood in a variety of the regional Frenches of the north, though perhaps Richard I’s Occitan would have been a stretch. I’m not sure what language mistress Alais did her sulking in, she was raised everywhere by everybody. Any of the above, I suppose, and as she’d been spent some of her childhood in England she probably picked up some English from the household help. In what tongue the various characters would have sniped, raged, conspired and hit on each other is anybody’s guess. Various of the Frenches, mostly, though Henry II and Eleanor both were fully conversant and literate in the Medieval Latin of the time (which is considerably closer to the Latin of the Catholic mass than the Latin of Caesar’s Commentaries), which would have been useful in front of the children. Qui auditunt quod stupri nocte?
Despite the characters enunciating some of the most glorious English you will ever hear on film—“he came down from the north with a mind like Ariistotle and a form like mortal sin; we shattered the Commandments on the spot”—it’s unlikely that any of the characters could utter more than a smattering of English. Enough on some rare trip across the Channel to order some peasants this way or that, or curse like in Beowulf, or say something filthy to a maid in the market. Otherwise the only character in the whole of the film that could actually be fluent in English would have been William Marshall, who spends the movie scurrying about obeying Peter O’Toole or arresting people. He’s the character you forget. O’Toole’s Henry II, though, is unforgettable. “I hope we never die!” he bellows at the close as only Peter O’Toole can bellow. “Do you think there’s a chance of it?” Alas, there wasn’t, he was gone soon enough, as was Eleanor. Indeed as was every man of royal blood in the story, beginning with Geoffrey, trampled to death at a jousting tournament. It’s William Marshall who came close to never dying, by medieval standards anyway, outliving Henry and his wife and sons by decades. He died in his bed at 72 and was buried with honor in London, the mass said in Latin, the eulogies in French, the throng of onlookers murmuring in English.
It would be two centuries before an English king could bellow at his wife and sons in the same language as Chaucer, another couple centuries till an English speaker could rage like Lawrence Olivier’s Richard II raged three centuries after that, and it’d be deep into the twentieth century before they could bellow like they bellowed in A Lion In Winter, a high medieval Francophone drama spoken in twentieth century English.
(Previously posted on BricksPicks.com)
Has Trump ever seen all those zany pillboxes Enver Hoxha left scattered about Albania like a zillion mushrooms after a spring rain? There’s a couple hundred thousand of them, laid about in madcap fashion. They’re scattered across pasture land blocking each other’s field of fire. They’re in long lines just perfect for target practice. They’re set at the water’s edge, awash in the tide. The Albanians poured more concrete making those than would be in a dozen of Trump’s walls and they’re even more useless. He’d be mad with envy at the profligacy of it all. We need a zillion pillboxes, he’d say. The best pillboxes. Or maybe we can buy Albania’s. Maybe we can buy Albania. Maybe we can conquer Albania. Mussolini did.
The smell of dead potato
[Found this forgotten in the drafts folder from 2018.]
Was at Ralphs and checked out the poor people veggie bin and there were three big bundles of potatoes at 99 cents each. My Irish German heart was set aflutter and I bought all three and once home dropped them into the tuber bag with the sweet potatoes and rutabaga and onions of every color. There they sat.
A day or two later I noticed a smell. I took out the garbage. Still the smell. Took out the bag full of recyclables. Still the smell. Searched every corner and crevice of the kitchen with the broom. Sniffed the garbage disposal. Nope. Sniffed myself. Nope, just a manly deodorant. The next day the odor had grown stronger and more fetid and propinquitous. Ah ha, the paper bag root cellar where I’d put the new potatoes. Sure enough, the smell emanated from it.
I reached in and removed one of the potato bundles. They were small and red and white and blue (well, purple) and smelled like potato. The next bag was full of big honking spud beasts, huge Idaho potatoid monstrosities that taste absolutely delicious baked and topped with low fat sour cream and chopped green onions (my brunch). They too smelled like potatoes. Then the next bundle, much like the first but with the faint odor of aged brick cheese, like the time we opened a block of very aged brick cheese at a party at our place and the guests mutinied, but not then but two weeks later when either the reek or the memory of the reek lingered. That smell. I laid the bundle on the counter and carefully snipped open the netting which contained it. Then ever so gingerly I picked up each potato, sniffed it, and put it down.
Finally I got to the bottom of the pile of potatoes. There in the middle was a mid sized white potato with a sickly pallor and swollen appearance. I lightly touched it and poof! it popped open and the room was fragrant with rotten potato. It was an eye watering reek. I pulled open the windows and then took the offending spud outside and threw it into the planter. Instant mulch.
Amazing how bad that rotten potato stench is. Not sure what causes it, is it the result of the fungus digesting (so to speak) the innards of the potato, or more likely the bacteria that accompanies the fungus? Doubtless I could spend the day looking this up on Google, but I won’t. (I did later, though. It’s the bacteria.) But I did remember how Irishmen digging up their fields in the 1840’s found row after row of shriveled, mushy, foul smelling potatoes, each rotten with fungus. Doubtless they smelled like this, rank as the ripest foulest cheese, and as the potato famine spread you would have smelled that same dead potato reek across the whole island (but especially in the Gaelic speaking west and south) as peasants desperately dug up every plant looking for a potato their family could eat. A million Irishmen died in the famine that followed and the smell of dead potatoes mingled everywhere with the smell of dead people into a sickly perfume till even the roses smelled of death.
The wreck of the Mars
The warship Mars, the flagship of the Swedish fleet, on the floor of the Baltic where it’s lain just like this since a long forgotten battle (the first battle of Öland) in a long forgotten war with Denmark (the Northern Seven Years War) in 1564. The ship (three decks high and 300 feet from bow to stern, enormous for the time) had a crew of eight hundred (half sailors and half soldiers) and one hundred and seventy cannon and was aflame and in desperate battle with three Danish warships who were boarding her and as the decks and rigging seethed with hand to hand combat and point blank musketry the flames reached the kegs of gunpowder in the magazine below and they exploded without warning, sending the crew and the hundreds of boarders into oblivion in a scene worthy of Cecil B. DeMille. Imagine the sudden silence.
One of these days I’ll get to Paris for Bastille Day. Not too likely this year. The closest I’ll get again will be this clip from Casablanca. It’s the best La Marseillaise I’ve ever seen on film, helped along no doubt by the fervor of the extras who were all refugees from Paris, escaping the Nazis. You can feel the genuine emotion in the explosion of Vive la France! at their anthem’s rousing finish.
You have to admit it’s a helluva song, La Marsellaise, an 18th century march, a popular form of the time, and written by some creaky old brigadier to fire up the hearts of the ragamuffin citizen soldiers being sent out to face the combined armies of all the kings of Europe. It worked, and the citizen armies made quick work of the walking muskets (Napoleon’s term) facing them. War was changed forever, it seemed, with massed drafts of citizens fighting in simpler formations (that needed less drill) and driven more by elan than the automaton discipline. War became vaster, more overwhelming, more dangerous. It took atomic bombs to finally slow it down, and there is no song for dropping atomic bombs, except maybe We’ll Meet Again. But then we’re being ironic, and there was nothing ironic about La Marseillaise. Irony went out with the Ancien Régime. Revolutions are like that.
I think when we Americans hear anything sung in French we think La Vie En Rose. Romantic, sad, wistful. When we actually see the lyrics of Le Marseillaise it’s kind of shocking. We forget it was written in the 1780’s to spur on citizens to take up arms against foreign armies intending to crush their revolution. So when we hear this:
Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!
Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L’étendard sanglant est levé, (repeat)
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes
Mugir ces féroces soldats?
Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras
Égorger vos fils, vos compagnes!
Aux armes, citoyens,
Formez vos bataillons,
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!
We still think of Maurice Chevalier loving Paris in the winter when it drizzles. We don’t know it says this:
Arise, children of the Fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us tyranny’s
Bloody banner is raised, (repeat)
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They’re coming right into your arms
To cut the throats of your sons, your women!
To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let an impure blood
Soak our fields!
And that is the nice verse. It goes on for half a dozen more.
A little riffing on Le Pen and fascism and French history
The landslide defeat of Le Pen today is historically a big thing for France—it is perhaps the most decisive defeat that the peculiarly French form of the far right has suffered since World War 2. The electorate, presented with the movement’s most presentable package ever, utterly rejected it. This doesn’t mean it is going away. It never has gone away. Yet it was only actually in power once, during the Vichy years, 1940-44. Nowhere was the Nazi consolidation of their conquest easier than in France, where perhaps a third of the populace were pre-disposed to a fascist government already and where the Nazi occupiers found no shortage of talented civil servants to operate the French government and bureaucracy for them. The French took care of collecting victims of the Holocaust for the Germans, the French collected and shipped their own citizens off to work in German factories, the French even had their own Gestapo. It was as if there had been a fascist infrastructure sitting there in France awaiting a fascist takeover. Whether that takeover came from inside or outside (i.e., from Germany) was no matter to the French right. When France’s greatest living military hero, Philippe Petain, who’d saved the French Army from mutiny and collapse in 1917 and eventually led them in victory through Berlin a year later, agreed to lead France under Nazi domination it just signalled how profoundly fascist the nation had become. Perhaps half the county felt it their patriotic duty to follow Petain. Perhaps more. A little known factoid from the war is that most of the French soldiers rescued at Dunkirk as the Blitzkrieg closed in demanded to be returned after the French surrender to France to finish their service in the Vichy army. That Vichy was a fascist puppet state did not bother them. France was now allied with Nazi Germany and Germany was at war with England. Serving in the Free French forces under De Gaulle was seen by many and perhaps most French soldiers in 1940 as being unpatriotic. That changed as Nazi repression grew worse and Nazi demands for French manpower increased and as Nazi armies were defeated on battlefields. But in 1940 it was obvious that fascism had dug deep roots in the French national psyche. No other state the Nazis conquered rolled over as did France. No other subject people collaborated so. Reading the histories of those days is surreal. France had been enemies to the death with Germany in World War One. They died in unbelievable numbers defending France. Not now. The spirit of fascism had transformed the land in the years between the wars. Not everyone was a fascist, of course, but enough were to make it very uncomfortable for those who were not.
Apparently that spirit remains. It just wasn’t quite sure how widespread it is. We now know. About a third of the French electorate has fascist tendencies. Some of that third are powerfully fascist, some just ornery nationalist. Which is about what it was in the 1930’s. Things haven’t fundamentally changed at all. Perhaps the left’s retribution after liberation in 1944 had not been ferocious enough. Perhaps they should have hanged Petain, and shot tens of thousands more. Perhaps they should have thrown a million collaborators in re-education camps. Perhaps there should have been a purge worthy of the darkest days of the French Revolution. But they were a democracy. And democracies don’t do that sort of thing. Besides, that is what Vichy had been doing. They were the ones killing and torturing and exacting brutal revenge on political enemies for four long years. No one wanted to go through that again.
Which might be what doomed Le Pen’s party to defeat. No one wanted to go through life under a far right government again. The French right had power only once, from 1940-44, and only because an anti-democratic foreign regime forced itself upon it. Without Nazi Germany there never would have been a fascist government in France. And now in lieu of Hitler it was Putin trying to put the French hard right in charge. A lot of bad memories came rushing back, you could see it in the French press. A lot of talk about Vichy, and Petain, and how the French Right had once sold out the French people for the sake of its brutal ideology. And then all the talk of an aggressive foreign dictator–Putin–interfering in French domestic politics, again, just like the 1930’s, when German Nazis and French fascists were very close. Not that Le Pen and her platform were anything even close to Naziism, but it sure smelled funny. And familiar. Like those odd smells that suddenly bring back the past in powerful deja vu. It was all too much, and today the French voters kicked the French right to the curb. The threat is over for now.
Not that the French far right’s struggle is over. It is never over. In France the next Revolution is always just around the bend (there have been five Republics since the Revolution, and perhaps twice that many regime changes). You can dream big dreams in France, because politically just about anything seems within the realm of possibility. Le Pen’s party will retreat and reform, as there is always fertile ground in France for this fierce Francophile nationalism (remember how it once conquered Europe), and at the same time elements of the far right might well grow more radical, getting violent and militant and perhaps even paramilitary. None of this is new. It was a powerful far right/fascist coalition that did so much to weaken the French Third Republic as Nazi Germany grew into a mortal threat in the 1930’s. Of course back then the French Far Left, with some elements following orders from Stalin, was the right’s foil, and Left and Right battled in the streets even as both undermined the center. During the Vichy regime those street battles took on a much more vicious nature as the left formed the core of the French Resistance (the Maquis) and the right became the parts of the Gestapo’s police state (the Milice). Now that French hard Left and even its softer Left is pretty much spent (for now, anyway) as a political force, only anti-semitic fascism remains as a mass movement, deeply rooted radical ideology in France. That is what made Le Pen’s campaign so unsettling, that unlike Trump she did not come out of nowhere but was the leader of a generations old political party that represented at least a century and a half of French ideological history. German fascism had shallower roots in 1933, yet swept the country after a couple electoral victories. Were we seeing a repeat of that success in France?
Nope. Liberté, égalité, fraternité, more or less, came though.
The Corpses of the DeWitt Brothers
There’s a meme making the rounds about how the Dutch lynched and ate their prime minister back in 1672 which is, alas, true. It also resulted in what has to be the creepiest Flemish Golden Age painting ever, “The Corpses of the DeWitt Brothers” by, it’s assumed, Jan De Baen, who had painted both DeWitts in life. You can see where steaks had been sliced from the shoulders and thighs, and how they’d been gutted and disemboweled in the process of getting at the liver. For some reason the liver is almost universally the gourmand’s organ of choice for humiliation by eating, whether by warring tribes in the New Guinea mountains or in the streets of Amsterdam in the Age of Rembrandt or by elite Japanese officers selectively devouring their prisoners in the Second World War. Devouring the heart ripped from a living man’s rib cage was certainly more dramatic but much less gastronomic. But that is probably a newer tradition, indeed one meaningless without the concept of a soul, which is what you are eating when you eat a man’s heart. A man’s soul, his spirit, his immortality. But eating a man’s liver requires only knowledge of what’s edible, indeed delectable, inside freshly killed prey. There is nothing so dehumanizing as reducing a human to a collection of food stuffs. It originated not as an act of humiliation but ordinary hunting. We once ate each other regularly. In times of stress we still might, though we did so more in ages past. It’s a tradition so universal that it might go back hundreds of thousands of years. It might even have a niche deep in our human DNA. Civilization’s aversion to cannibalism has been slowly built up over thousands of years and reinforced with layers of religion and law and tradition and mores. Otherwise we might be eating people the way we eat cattle. Perhaps our overwhelming success as social animals has something to do with the fact that we stopped hunting each other for food. We still hunt and kill other humans, but almost never for meat. Civilization does not work if we eat people regularly. There is not one civilization that did so. Not even when human sacrifice reached vast proportions, like among the Aztec during their holier months, was eating parts of people more than a priestly ritual.
We have such an enforced aversion to cannibalism that we do not even eat our dead, but rather let all those perfectly good steaks and sweetmeats rot away. It makes no sense, protein wise. Some very hungry people will think it makes no sense during times of intense famine when cannibalism crops up, though when discovered the cannibals typically are dispatched summarily, like rabid dogs. Undetected surviving cannibals do not continue eating human flesh once the famine is over. Or usually they don’t. History is full of disturbing exceptions. Perhaps the desire to eat human meat lies deep within us. And there does seem to be a latent desire to eat a person’s liver. It is good for the digestion, a Japanese general explained after eating a freshly slaughtered American pilot’s liver in 1945. It was fresh (the garrison’s surgeon did the cutting), cooked to perfection and served on a bed of rice with vegetables and a fine sake. Apparently there is something special, indeed healthy, about eating a humiliated man’s liver. The transcripts of the war crimes trial–the general’s digestion may have improved, but he hanged for it later–reveal nothing behind his notion that eating a man’s liver was good for the digestion. A bit of folk wisdom, perhaps. Maybe some ancient magic.
In the case of Johan de Witt and his brother Cornelius (both anti-monarchist republicans and supporters of religious tolerance), the two were cold bloodedly murdered one midsummer night by monarchist militia men and their bodies left to the reactionary Calvinist mob in the square. The scene quickly degenerated into an orgiastic mob, but one very orderly and Dutch. The bodies were not ripped to pieces, a not uncommon fate of Byzantine emperors and Roman martyrs (a tradition that nearly caught up with Benito Mussolini in 1945, who was spared the ultimate indignity when soldiers came upon the scene and kept his battered corpse intact ). Rather they were quickly hung up on a nearby gibbet in order to slice them up to get at their livers. From the painting it appears that professionals were called in, the local Calvinist butcher perhaps. It’s not clear how the livers were partaken. Served up fresh and raw and passed among the crowd who took a nibble before passing it along? Or divided into delicate slices and distributed for home cooking? History does not tell. No one else died, though, nothing was burned, and by nightfall the streets were empty and the corpses of the brothers hung, naked and mutilated and ghostly white by the light of the moon. It must have been an irresistible scene to a painter, though you can tell, by the clumsier details–the cat, or those hands a little too large on the man holding the torch–that he hurried to get the image down on canvas, like this was no place for an artist, not with the smell of the mob’s work still fresh in the air, sweet, like rotting meat.
Johan De Witt was an accomplished mathematician, by the way. But there was an anti-intellectual mood in Holland that year, and being a mathematician probably only helped to doom him.
It was the best of times: the nostalgia of modern day fascism, a Dutch case history.
Geert Wilders, the headline said, the Donald Trump of the Netherlands who wants to lead his country of the European Union and shut the borders to Muslims. You see this a lot lately, countries have their own Donald Trumps. Yet Geert Wilders has been a player on the Dutch political stage for years, and the Netherlands has a political history that most European nations share but the United States doesn’t. We’ve had the KKK. But the KKK, even at its most vast in the 1920’s, was never a political movement in the sense of wanting to take over the reins of government. There has never been a hard right fascist movement in the US that amounted to more than a few hundred to a few thousand scattered weirdos in jack boots. But there is scarcely a nation in Europe that did not in the 1930’s have a militant movement of hardened fascists whose goal, whether through elections (as in Germany) or military coup (as in Spain) or revolution (as in Italy), was the fascist control and re-engineering of society. Most of them became willing participants in the Nazi regime once the Germans conquered or assimilated their countries. Other fascist movements–as in England and Switzerland–never got the chance before their leaders were imprisoned or interned by their government for the duration of the war. And still others–Spain, mainly, but also the fascist elements in Portugal–eschewed the Germans almost completely and survived fascism’s collapse in 1945. (However, Spain sent fifty thousand volunteers, the Blue Division, to the Russian front where nearly all fought to the death, paragons of the fascist warrior ideal, if about as un-Aryan as a European could be). The Dutch had a home grown nazi/fascist/national socialist movement before the war, a movement that was both well developed and well known by the late thirties, so well known, in fact, that Dutch nazis were the evil conspirators in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent.
But things were moving so fast and on such a scale that all their dreams of a Dutch fascist empire seemed like schoolboy fantasies. Holland was too small. It hadn’t fought a war since the Battle of Waterloo. Twentieth century history was vast and sweeping and full of revolution and war and transformation. What was Holland but shopkeepers and chocolate and memories of greatness gone by? So man did those Dutch national socialists get excited when Hitler invaded Holland without warning in the spring of 1940. Yes, the Luftwaffe leveled Rotterdam, just to show that the Luftwaffe could level Rotterdam. But look at the upside. Now at last Dutch fascists could have their Greater Dutch Empire, including Belgium, the Belgian Congo, the Dutch East Indies, South Africa (they assumed Hitler would take it from the defeated English and give it to back the Dutch) and a few places in the western hemisphere even–Suriname, Curacao, Aruba and a smattering of other islands acquired in the sugar and slaves days. Even the Frisian Islands. It would be a global empire, with domains on four continents and hundreds of millions of subjects. No one would laugh at the Dutch then, with their wooden shoes and tulips and Bergen Op Zoom. They would be the rulers of a mighty fascist empire. Not even Germany, which in the mid thirties was still just a rump state of what had been Imperial Germany–had anything even remotely possible (it seemed at the time) on the scale of such a Dutch fascist empire. And who would lead this realm? Who was the mighty leader of which there were problems only he could fix?
It was to be Anton Mussert, the leader and co-founder of the Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging (National Socialist Movement) of Holland since 1931. Virtually every country in Europe had their little führer to be, Mussert was the Dutch version. But it was a fleeting fantasy. By 1939 it was obvious that Hitler’s Germany was no longer a rump state of anything, and Dutch fascists, if they wanted to avoid being a boil on Germany’s Nazi ass, better join with the Third Reich. The Nazi invasion was their deliverance, their moment, the end of history and beginning of the new era. Hitler, as he did with the local Nazis everywhere he conquered, put Mussert in charge and expected him to serve his new masters. He did, too. He was quite helpful when it came to rounding up Holland’s hundred thousand Jews, and even more helpful when the Nazis began plucking Dutch men off the streets to work in German war industries. He must have been annoying, though, as the Germans eventually stopped bothering with him, and by the time the Nazis were deliberately starving the Dutch in 1944 no one paid attention to Mussert at all. He said virtually nothing as his people starved–the Nazis kept him well fed–and one can only imagine the dread filling him as he watched the Allies advance. It all ended so fast. In 1940 Germany was the crest of the future of mankind, the Dutch included. By 1945 Nazi Germany was a leveled wasteland, destroyed, and the Nazis themselves on the run. The restored government Dutch government shot Mussert after the war, an afterthought, a footnote at best. They gave him a two day trial. I have no idea what he said in his own defense. I was just following orders wouldn’t have worked. Pride utterly gone, he begged the queen for clemency. She refused. He was executed by firing squad in 1946, in the same plaza where hundreds if Dutch had been executed (who knows how many by his direct order) during the war for violating some Nazi edict or another. If he had any last words, I couldn’t find them.
I have no idea if Anton Mussert is a hero to his new spawn. He certainly doesn’t look like a hero. He’s a balding, pudgy nebbish–pardon the Yiddish–in a silly uniform. Then again, people who look like complete schmucks can get elected president. It’s all a matter of perception. Perhaps people who think Geert Wilders is the most charismatic thing since Gouda cheese would be knocked off their feet by a shot of Anton Mussert giving the straight armed salute. I have no idea. It is very difficult to get into the mindset of these atavistic Nazi nostalgists.
Many of the new Dutch fascists (or however one says Alt-Right in Dutch) certainly do lionize the few ten thousand Dutch who joined the Waffen SS to wear groovy black uniforms with skulls and crossbones and swastikas to fight hard against Bolshevism and Jewry and commit inexplicable war crimes. Some of the surviving Dutch SS members were hanged or shot later too. Probably not enough, but some. Most of them were killed on the Russian front. Things were never easy at home either those five long years, 1940-45. I read somewhere that the Netherlands had more dead and killed residents per capita than any other country in Western Europe. War, Holocaust, famine and bombing took their toll. Denmark, another flat, small peace loving democratic monarchy, had skated though the Nazi occupation relatively unscathed, even after saving almost every one of its Jewish residents from the Holocaust. But Holland was not Denmark. Holland was trashed, starved, bombed, and fought over. Thousands of its citizens were slaves in the German foreign workers program. It certainly was unable to save its Jewish population. Yet the Danes avoided all that horror without the need of a quisling like Mussert. His being on a first name basis with Hitler did The Netherlands no good at all. He made a lot of those dead Dutch possible. That was brought up in his trial. I wish we knew what he uttered in is own defense.
Neither could The Dutch, unlike the equally humiliated French, take solace that their overseas empire was still in the fight. Because for the duration of the war in the Pacific (1942 to 1945) in the vast Dutch colonial domain known as the East Indies, the tens of thousands of Dutch soldiers and sailors and civilians and colonial administrators captured or interned by the Japanese died at a prodigious rate in Japanese camps. And millions of subject Indonesians were killed or worked or starved to death (about four million is the usual figure). The Asian Holocaust that took place within the Japanese Empire from 1937-45 was nearly as brutal as anything the Third Reich came up with, and sometimes more so, and only China saw more violence, murder and brutality under Japanese fascist occupation than did the Dutch East Indies. (The Philippines came in a close third). The Dutch were just as helpless in preventing any of it as they were back home in Holland. Afterward, the Indonesians learned that no matter how much they hated the Japanese, the Japanese had at least shown that Asians can defeat Europeans. Japanese arms had beat the Russians in 1905. Then even more stunningly, Japanese armies, navies and air forces in 1941 and 1942 routed the Americans in the Philippines, the English at Singapore, the French in Indochina (they just walked in and took the place, and the French let them) and most importantly from the Indonesian nationalist point of view, they easily routed the Dutch the length and breadth of the Dutch East Indies. So the Indonesians rose up and booted out the Netherlands colonial administration and the tens of thousands of Dutch soldiers sent to put down the rebellion. Japanese prisoners even pitched in (as they did in Indochina as well). Somehow the whole story has slipped from the public historical consciousness, but it was one of the great anti-colonial revolutions, and the Battle of Surabaya, even though the Dutch army (and navy and air force) won it tactically, it is one of the most decisive battles since World War Two, leading to the end of a great colonial empire. An army raised by small, brown skinned, colonial subjects, armed with as many modern weapons as they could get their hands on, nearly beat a modern European army. It did not go unnoticed throughout Asia. Indeed, perhaps the Indonesian Revolution will prove a key moment in world history, though we don’t know it yet.
Yet it is certainly a key moment of colonial liberation that is impossible to imagine without the context of the rise of fascism–a German fascism corrupting and conquering the Netherlands, and Japanese fascism seizing the East Indies. Holland as a colonial power was mortally wounded by the Japanese, as was Britain’s hold on India after the abject humiliation of their loss of Singapore. Fascism, though it failed, inflicted wounds on European colonial powers that bled their colonial empire to death within a few years. The Netherlands, Great Britain, France and Belgium were booted from Asia inside of a decade, and from Africa wiithin two. (Only Portugal, protected from the storm of Nazi revolution and total war by the neutrality of Spain, found its overseas empire unfazed.) That was the power of fascism, the lasting result of its nihilism and destruction. From 1931 to 1945 it was an existential threat to the world on a scale not seen since the Mongol invasions. It lost, totally, completely, nearly annihilated. But it left little fascist seeds scattered about, blown by the winds, and they seem to be germinating at last. Like Geert Wilders, for instance, the 21st century Anton Mussert, sans jackboots.
When you come down to it, weighing the good (shiny uniforms, getting to hang with Hitler) against the bad (murder, starvation, genocide, loss of empire and dignity), Dutch fascism turned out to be a complete disaster and abject humiliation for the Dutch people and Dutch state. And now a reborn Dutch fascism, a kinder, gentler fascism, seems to be returning, following the distinctly non-German playbook that Anton Mussert and his pals were so effective with for a while in the 1930’s. There is that musty haven’t-we-been-here-before feel in the sights and sounds and ideology of Geert Wilders. Nostalgia. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.