Saturday, 28 June 2014

The Centenary of the Great War - Part I

On this day in 1914, at 11:00 am or thereabouts (10:00 am British Summer Time, 09:00 GMT), a young Serb named Gavrilo Princip stepped out in front of a car carrying the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife, Sophia, and fired two shots from an FN model 1910 Browning pistol.  The first hit Franz in the neck, the second hit Sophia in the abdomen.  By 11:30, both were dead.

It's well known that this event was the spark that ignited the powder keg of the First World War.  But how did the powder keg come to be there?  Why did Princip take the action he did?

Needless to say, the events that led to the war were many and varied, and played out over a long time.  I present here a simplified account - a detailed account would be, and is, the subject of a great many books.

Setting the Scene

Europe at the time was the home of several large empires, referred to as the Great Powers.  These were:

Great Britain and The British Empire 
Comprising 25% of the earth's land surface and 25% of its population, the British Empire was at the time the most powerful nation on the planet.  Ruled by King Edward VII until his death in 1910, when his son George V became King.

France, and her Empire
A long-time rival and enemy of the British Empire, the two were now in an uneasy alliance, with little to gain from conflict with one another.

The German Empire
Formerly a sprawling mass of principalities, kingdoms and republics, had been welded into the German Empire in 1870 by Otto von Bismark.  The ruler at the time we are looking at was Kaiser Wilhelm II.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire
Bear with me here, because this one is not simple. The legacy of the Holy Roman Empire, Austria-Hungary (cobbled together from a large and diverse number of nations with fifteen official languages) was the constitutional union of the Empire of Austria and the Apostolic Kingdom of Hungary, and for this reason was also known as the Dual Monarchy.  Hungary had only relatively recently been granted equal status to Austria within the Empire, but had always had its own parliament and laws.  Croatia-Solvenia was an autonomous country under the Hungarian crown, and Bosnia-Herzegovina was under Austro-Hungarian military and civil rule from 1878 until 1908, when it was annexed and became part of the Empire.  At the time we are concerned with, Franz Josef I was emperor, with his nephew Franz Ferdinand as Heir.

The Russian Empire
Existing as a state since 1721, the Russian Empire spanned Europe and Asia from the White Sea to the Pacific, and also included Alaska. Tsar Nicholas II was ruler at the time.

The Italian Empire
Existing as a unified state only since 1861, Italy's empire was a result of its participation in the scramble for Africa. 

The Ottoman Empire of Turkey
Powerful throughout the Nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was in decline by the beginning of the Twentieth.  Several of its European territories had declared independence from the empire, which Istanbul seemed powerless to prevent.

As you would expect, the Great Powers did not operate in complete isolation from one another.  Germany,   fearing that if the Russian Empire were to ally with France, had in the 1870s and 80s  formed a triple alliance of Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary, hoping that the Russians would not guess their intentions.  They did, and on Bismark's exit from power in 1890, Russia left the triple alliance and formed her own alliance with France in 1894.  Germany and Austria-Hungary remained in an alliance more out of political inertia, although the shared Russian enemy was also a factor.  Italy was nominally brought into the alliance in 1882, although she had designs on Trieste and the South Tirol, so Austria-Hungary (in whose territory those provinces lay) didn't consider the Italians a reliable ally.

So things ticked along in the usual grumbling European manner, with the Great Powers eyeing one another suspiciously and carrying out their usual intrigues.

The Bosnian Crisis of 1908 and the Balkan Wars

It was Austria-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 that really set the cat amongst the pigeons.

Bosnia-Herzegovina had been a province of the Ottoman Empire, although under Austro-Hungarian rule for some time (19th Century European politics were anything but straightforward); however, Austria-Hungary wished to ensure that the Turks would not try to re-establish their grip on the region, and so brought Bosnia into the empire.  Many of the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina were happy enough about this, gaining full and equal citizenship as they did, although most of the Great Powers were not so pleased, as they saw it as a violation of the Treaty of Berlin of 1878 (which we won't go into here); the simultaneous declaration of independence from the Ottoman Empire by Bulgaria was viewed in much the same manner.

The neighbouring nations of Serbia and Montenegro were also deeply unhappy about it; 40% of the Bosnian population were ethnic Serbs, and doubtless both they and Serbia would have preferred Bosnia to come under Belgrade's influence.  So great was Serbia's pique that it ordered a general mobilisation, and demanded that either the annexation was reversed, or that Serbia should receive compensation in the form of territory.  A strip of land was handed over and the Serbians backed down.  Russia was similarly annoyed, but with the threat of Germany backing Austria-Hungary and the careful leaking of documents in which Russia had secretly agreed the Austria-Hungary could do as it pleased with Bosnia, Russia backed down but was not at all happy.

Things rumbled on for a time; Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Greece had gained independence form the Ottoman Empire by the early 20th century, but large ethnic populations remained under Turk rule.  In 1912, these four nations set up the Balkan League, partly in response the the Ottoman Empires lack of ability to govern itself and also in response to the failure of the other Great Powers to ensure that Turkey would carry out the needed reforms. Confident that they could defeat the Turks, the Balkan League took up arms and the First Balkan War began, ending the same year with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and the drafting of the Treaty of London. This ended five centuries of Turkish rule in the Balkans.

Bulgaria was unhappy about the division of the spoils of the war, however, particularly with regard to a secret agreement between Serbia and Greece with regard to Macedonia.  Accordingly, it attacked them, and the Second Balkan War began in June 1913.  Romania and the Ottoman Empire also joined in, attacking Bulgaria.  The war ended with the Treaty of Bucharest, under which Bulgaria lost most of the territory it had gained in the first war.

So what had all this to do with anything?

Well, for one thing, it annoyed the Serbs.  The annexation of Bosnia in 1908 led them to set up the Narodna Odbrana (National Defence) and its more radical spin-off, Ujedinjenje ili Smrt (Union or Death), known as the Black Hand.  Both organisations were well known to Belgrade - in fact, the Head of Serbian Military Intelligence, col. Dragutin Dimitrijevitch, was the head of the Black Hand.  And it was with these organisations, with their help and blessing, that Gavrilo Princip and his fellow conspirators were affiliated.

The Balkan Wars had shown the Serbs that they were strong, and Austria-Hungary's refusal to involve itself in the wars had convinced the Serbs that the Dual Monarchy was weak.  Ironically, it was Franz Ferdinand who had been a major influence in preventing Austria-Hungary's involvement in the wars, with the support of Count Stefan Tisza, the minister-president of Hungary.

Secondly, it annoyed the Russians.  Forced to back down over the Balkan Crisis of 1908, Russia was smarting where Austria-Hungary was concerned, and felt a strong affiliation with the Serbs, their fellow orthodox Slavs.

Russia had other, pressing concerns.  The Russo-Japanese war and the subsequent rebellion within Russia in 1905 had highlighted to the Russians just how precarious their domestic situation was.  Agricultural reforms were needed, and mechanisation required.  A programme of improvement had been embarked upon, with Russia trading grain for machinery; the problem was that the Black Sea ports were the only ports Russia had on its western end that could remain open all year round. The Turks had briefly closed the Ottoman Straits (the Bosphorus, Sea of Mamara and the Dardanelles) in the First Balkan War in 1912, during which time Russia's Black Sea exports dropped by a third and their heavy industry in Ukraine all but ground to a halt.  When the Russians learned that a German general had been placed in charge of the Ottoman troops defending the straits, the Russians really began to worry.

Russia had had to make plans, therefore; in the event of a European war, one of her first acts would be to attack the Ottoman Empire and seize Constantinople and the Straits, in an attempt to keep trade flowing.  In an effort to check Germany, Russia had developed strong ties with France, with much in the way of trade and joint defence treaties between the two nations.

And Britain too had allegiance with France, with much of the naval strategy of the two Empires being interdependent.

And so a group of young, idealistic Serbs hatched a plan to strike at the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and attack the heir as he toured the recently annexed province of Bosnia - a province that the Serbs felt should belong to them.  And on the 28th of January, on the last day of Franz and Sophia's tour, they struck.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Because I like it, and because it's true...

In the late 19th & early 20th centuries, children's school copybook used to have little sayings and phrases in the headers of each page.  So here is a poem Kipling wrote about them.

The Gods of the Copybook Headings

AS I PASS through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.

With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.

When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "Stick to the Devil you know."

On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "The Wages of Sin is Death."

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "If you don't work you die."

Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

All we demand is your silent, obedient consent

A few years ago, the idea of gay marriage was a bit strange to most people. Unorthodox. Now, not only is it legal in many places in the western world, but has become something of a new orthodoxy. Far too quickly, as Brendan O'Neill puts it very well.

Meet Doll, Kitten and Brynn Young, three women from Massachusetts who have recently married each other as a threesome. God help them - one wife was more than enough for me.  But I'm a cynical bastard.

I notice that their outfits are traditional, at least...

Never mind that polygamous marriages have been forbidden the rest of us for centuries (barring certain communities and cultures). That's not what concerns me here. Neither am I particularly worried about gay marriage either. I do not care who wishes to marry whom. People can have relationships with whoever they choose as far as I'm concerned - as long as all are consenting adults, it's all gravy. The mystery to me is why gay people have wanted government approval for their choice of partner, but each to their own.  And I am certainly not going to pretend that this tripartite tying of the knot (what if one of them wants out - how will the divorce work then?  A Gordian knot is what it'll be) is the herald of a wave of such marriages, because I very much doubt that it is.

What does interest - and concern - me is the reaction to this, and what it portends. Not the false moral panic that the tabloids pedal, but rather the new moral orthodoxy by which any question or hint of criticism of a three-way lesbian marriage will be met with a barrage of fury, accusation or mockery.

You see, ten years ago, gay marriage was the pipe-dream of a very small minority.  The idea of two men or two women marrying each other was...well, slightly preposterous.  Now, of course - in the last year or so - any hint of criticism of the idea is met with the kind of reaction hitherto reserved for the holocaust denier.  And in the YouTube video linked to, we see TJ, 'the Amazing Atheist', rip into those who have a hard time getting to grips with a gay marriage involving not two, but three women.  As though such unions were commonplace and long-established.

And it is this that I take issue with.

You see, changes in societal attitudes happen gradually, over extended periods.  What was unthinkable becomes shocking, then forbidden, then merely outrĂ©, then uncommon, then relatively common, get the picture.  This takes time, understandably.  People have to get used to an idea, and have to be able to question it, pull it about a bit, examine it from all sides so that they can decide where to put it, how to fit it into their worldview.  If you are asking people to accept and live with something, you really ought to let them figure out how.  Be patient.  It'll come.

We are, however, seeing an increasing tendency towards social engineering.  The forcing-through of societal 'reform' in a manner that is decidedly out of tune with the usual organic mode of change; the refusal to allow people to question and idea, or offer criticism, or even think about it.  No, unquestioning acceptance is required, immediately.  And if the majority of the population don't like it - well, tough.  You are all bigots and evil; see how we select some of you for public shaming - now get in line, prole scum.

You see, essential to any society is a shared set of values and a commonly acknowledged set of institutions.  If there are no shared values, no agreed institutions, then there is no society.  At all.  There is just a lot of individuals living in physical propinquity to one another, but with nothing else in common.  If the existing values and institutions are destroyed - or at least, changed radically to the point that they no longer resemble their former selves, and so quickly that the populace cannot keep pace with the change (which would effectively their destruction and replacement with something else) - then the society that once upheld those values and institutions no longer exists.

Immigration presented similar challenges to many people; a steady but measured stream of immigrants is something that a people can deal with.  They get to know new people who have arrive from far-flung shores, and understand them.  Acceptance follows understanding - we have seen this with those immigrants who arrived here on the Windrush and in the years that followed.  Acceptance was slow in coming, but it did come.  And once the British population had accepted those immigrants, so it became easier for them to accept other people arriving from India, Pakistan, and many other countries.

However, the progressive left mistook this for, at best an enthusiasm for immigrant communities or, at worst an indifference, which would allow for very large numbers of new people to enter the country in a very short time.  When Labour actively encouraged more then three million people to join the population during their last tenure, they utterly failed to keep in mind that people need to be able to adjust to new circumstances.

Here lies the rub.  We find ourselves in a situation wherein a lot has changed, and very quickly.  Gender (and, if the example set by the three women above does become more common, number of spouses) is no longer relevant in marriage; the demography of the country has changed drastically and rapidly and the arrivals have brought with them their own values and institutions.  Many people have found the communities that they have lived in their entire lives altered almost beyond recognition; political correctness has curtailed drastically how they can express themselves. They are not even allowed to ask questions.

You see, a society is supported by its institutions.  Institutions like marriage, like community values, like language and culture - all of those things.  The institutions might change over time, or be replaced, but it is an organic process that, given time, can happen quite naturally.  The trouble comes when you knock those institutions away, rapidly, forcibly and without offering anything in their stead; when you try to switch common culture for multiculturalism in a very short space of time.  The pillars supporting the society have been knocked away, and the whole thing starts to crumble.  Predictable, isn't it?

Don't get me wrong; I have no wish to sound like some Colonel Blimp bemoaning the loss of Victorian values.  But I do not wish to see the society I live in become morally and intellectually bankrupt.  And that seems to be the way we are going.  And God help anyone who tries to point it out.

Earthquakes, Local and Continental...

So, UKIP did better than the media luvvies would have liked in the elections last week.  They did well despite a concerted slur campaign conducted by Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives.  They did well despite the misinformation spread by the gutter press - which nowadays includes the broadsheets.  They did well despite the right-on metro twitterati tweeting furiously about how racist they all are.

Of course, in reality, they didn't do all that well.  They captured 17% of the vote - which is to say, 17% of the 35% of the electorate that bothered to vote, bothered to vote for UKIP.  Claims of an earthquake have been rather over-stated.

Amusing to me has been the reaction to UKIP's gains, though.  The horror and outrage, the illiberal desires expressed that anyone who votes for any party other than those approved of by the chattering classes ought not to be allowed to vote.  Democracy, it seems, is like free speech - it is precious.  So precious that it should be rationed.

Anyway, I am not here to fly the flag for UKIP, or anyone else.  I am here to express my amusement and bemusement.

You see, there can be no denying that the parties of left and right have become very similar over the last couple of decades.  They are converging in their policies and outlook, as is bound to happen in a democracy, especially one with a 'first past the post' voting system. If the electorate are so short-sighted as to vote only for what will benefit them personally (rather than what is good for society as a whole), then the parties running in the elections will seek to offer them such sweeteners as will induce the public to vote for each party.  And so they converge, bribing the voters with the voters' own money.

This has happened in the UK.  The politicos inhabiting the Westminster bubble have long since stopped listening to the likes of you and I, and instead listen only to the lobbyists, the corporate sponsors and the single-issue campaigners.  They listen to the eurocrats, most of all.  And while they hand more and more of the executive and legislative powers to Brussels, they then seek more power to control what we eat and drink, how much we exercise, what we say, what we think and what we smoke.

This is not good.  Whichever way you slice it, such control over our everyday lives can only ever have negative effects and is not desirable in any way, shape or form.

The government are supposedly the servants of the public, but they have long since forgotten this and have become our masters.  Should any member of the public dare to give voice to what concerns them, they will be branded as bigoted.

So, surely it is time to shake things up a bit?  Wouldn't it be good to make the bastards realise that we, the electorate, wish to be heard?  That we are sick of being lied to?  Why, yes, yes it would.

And this is why UKIP's gains have, for me at least, been a cause for celebration.  UKIP haven't gained any real power and they certainly will not win the next general election, but they have managed to rattle the Westminster crowd out of their complacency somewhat.

And surely, whoever you vote for, this can only be a good thing.