Category Archives: History

The Salon: Richard Payne

In this edition of The Salon, Aidan is joined by Richard Payne to discuss his experiences in the Merchant Navy, living in Germany, his University life as a mature student of history, and a number of interesting topics, all the way from Karl Marx to Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, some may argue that the aforementioned Marx and Corbyn are not far enough apart politically to enable Labour to win an election. Richard and Aidan also discuss Brexit, Donald Trump, National Service, the British identity, and also delve into philosophy, featuring a disagreement regarding free will and determinism. However, Richard and Aidan certainly agree on the thorny subject of the Daily Mail’s poisonous agenda. Agree or disagree, thank you for listening. Debate is healthy. Well, at least it should be.

Advertisements

The Salon: Ben Lewry

What is it like working as a doorman? Standing in the cold for hours on end, dealing with various examples of disagreeable behaviour and trying to keep others safe can often mean that working as a doorman proves to be a thankless task.

On this episode of The Aidan Project’s Salon edition, Aidan is joined by Ben Lewry, an experienced doorman, Security Manager and a Security Industry Authority approved trainer in the East of England. In addition to many years spent on the frontline of security, Ben also teaches several accredited courses, including licence holding for bar operators, the use of CCTV, and health and safety. Ben is proactive in sharing security advice, including the dangers of excessive drinking, how to avoid becoming a victim of theft, and being alert to the threat of terrorism. On the show, Ben offers his views on the current terrorist threat, human rights, British drinking culture, the safety of vulnerable females, cuts in police budgets, and much more. Ben is the owner of Titans Security Limited, whose website is located at http://www.titansuk.com/. You can follow Titans Security on Twitter @TITANS_UK or you can call them on +44 01473 558738.

Dunkirk: From Spike Milligan to Christopher Nolan

nintchdbpict000258121120

When defining what it is, or perhaps increasingly, what it was, to be British, courage under fire and Churchillian intransigence rank highly. Stiff upper lip, staying calm and carrying on. Much of this identity is borne out of World War 2, when Britain, so it was claimed at the time, stood alone. Alone, of course, apart from its vast Empire. There is no question, I hasten to add, that the evacuation from the northern French town of Dunkerque was an incredible undertaking. However, for understandable reasons of wartime propaganda, there are prevailing myths associated with Operation Dynamo that continue to this day; etched in stone within the British consciousness and collective memory.

How will Christopher Nolan’s 2017 summer blockbuster, Dunkirk, handle the realities and address the myths of this event? It will be intriguing to see how far Nolan goes in telling the harsh home truths about 27 May – 4 June 1940. Little is known about the project, which is in keeping with Nolan’s closely guarded filmmaking process. The first trailer for the film looks gritty enough. We see abandoned vehicles, a woebegone soldier walking into the sea to end his life, and the horrified reaction of a terrorised Cillian Murphy when informed that his rescue vessel is returning to the beach. Indeed, Operation Dynamo was, quite literally, far from plain sailing.

Will we see the spat between the army and the RAF, which arose as a result of the former wrongly believing that the airmen had not taken to the sky to combat the Luftwaffe? Churchill, in his voluminous memoirs of the war, noted how much it upset him to hear that rescued soldiers were furious with the RAF, unaware that a great struggle had indeed taken place above the channel. Will the bravery of the French to hold the line be featured? Will we see scuffles on the beach between the English and French over the precedence in evacuation? Nolan did much to make Batman real, so I imagine realism will dominate myth in his telling of the real story of Dunkirk.

Certainly, the fortuitous decision of the Germans not to press the assault on Dunkirk with tanks and artillery, and to instead rely on Herman Goering’s confident posturing that his Luftwaffe could finish the job, was the primary reason 340,000 personnel made it off the beach. The Allies were heroic, no doubt, but the Germans had made a huge tactical blunder.

Another aspect of 1940 which remains little known is that Britain was not as united in its desire to fight to the end as popular imagination tells us. Indeed, Churchill’s defiance was not even shared by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, who considered attempting to topple the Prime Minister to pursue an armistice with Hitler. Another enduring myth of the evacuation is the apparent eager acquiescence of boat owners to assist in the withdrawal. Whilst it is true that many bravely answered the call, many certainly did not. One can quite understand their reluctance.

Another film set during the opening months of World War 2, due for release a year from now in December 2017, is Darkest Hour, in which Churchill is portrayed by Gary Oldman. Could either film be bold enough to explore the claim that three of Churchill’s famous radio speeches were actually read by the actor, Norman Shelley, including the legendary “Fight them on the beaches” oration? In truth, this is unlikely for reasons of disputed evidence, and moreover, because the most prominent historian to make this claim is David Irving. To put it mildly, Irving has a less than stellar reputation, and is perhaps best known for his denial of the Holocaust and the famous libel trial that resulted from it.

In any case, as a massive fan of Nolan’s work – especially Inception, The Dark Knight and The Prestige – and a proponent for the teaching of history in as many forums as possible, I look forward to seeing Dunkirk when it hits cinemas on 21 July 2017. Much of the reality of Dunkirk has been glossed over for the benefit of national pride, but Dynamo is doubtless an incredible story, especially when told accurately. The harsh realities of Dynamo, for my money, make the event more engaging, not less. The proud flag-waving propagated at the time and since cannot be dismissed out of hand, because, after all, war is war. But the truth is that Dynamo was something of a disaster. The British Expeditionary Force was saved, but its equipment was lost to the shores of a defeated France.

There is no question that Churchill sincerely believed what he said when voicing a willingness to continue the struggle; to fight on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields, in the streets and in the hills. However, what equipment Britain would have had to do such fighting is, fortunately for the United Kingdom, something that never required an answer.

The late comedian, Spike Milligan, who was serving in the British army on the English side of the channel during the evacuation, offered a frank summation of the real Dunkirk in his autobiography. Milligan could have spoken for many when he wrote, “As the immensity of the defeat became apparent, somehow the evacuation turned into a strange victory.” Milligan further noted the striking words of a Bombardier, ‘Kean’, who had made it off the beach and was posted to Milligan’s regiment thereafter. When Milligan asked what the operation had been like, Kean responded, “Like, son? It was a fuck up. A highly successful fuck-up.” Churchill, for all his celestial talk of deliverance and miracles, did offer a similarly grounded, though more politically-conscious, conclusion when he told Parliament on 4 June 1940, “Wars are not won by evacuations.”

Update

22 July 2017

‘Notes on Dunkirk’

Upon seeing the film, here is my podcast. In this edition of the Aidan Project, Aidan looks at the glorious myths and gloomy realities of the real Dunkirk, and examines how accurately Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster addresses the bittersweet events of Operation Dynamo.

The Salon: Craig Sennett

Craig Sennett joins Aidan in the Salon for this edition of The Aidan Project Podcast. Craig owns an IT company and is also involved in marketing. Outside work, Craig invests his time assisting numerous charities. On the show, we discuss technology, Artificial Intelligence, the media, Brexit, the tragic events in Berlin, Islam, immigration, Donald Trump, charity, and more. We have also both seen Rogue One, but do not worry, there are no spoilers here. You can e-mail Craig via craig@pcfutures.co.uk. Thank you for listening.

The Salon: Daniel Coughlan


The Aidan Project Podcast’s first Salon edition has arrived. The Salon is a cosy place for Enlightened thinking and discussion. Pull up a chair, grab a coffee and settle down.

In this edition, I am talking to amateur athlete and marketing professional, Daniel Coughlan, about a wealth of subjects, including his experiences as a football (soccer) coach in both the United States and Britain. We also discuss athletics, cycling, the Olympics, his Iron Man exploits, nature versus nurture, motivation, nutrition, why he has given up eating meat, and much more besides, including endemic problems within British sport. Daniel is a marketing whizz by day, so I also asked him for advice for business owners who have limited budgets. Daniel is a super nice guy who is a pleasure to talk to, so enjoy the show, and please share if you can.

Aidan

Louis XIV: An Absolute Monarch?

I am the state

Louis XIV

Louis XIV

In a recent podcast, I discussed the merits of concerns that the next United States President may turn Washington on its head and govern as a maniacal autocrat. I looked at the culture of the US and reached a conclusion about the likelihood of Trump ruling the States as a modern absolute monarch. This blog takes a look at absolute monarchy, investigating the limitations in practice of the man most associated with the term absolutism, Louis XIV of France.

The concept of absolutism is one in which the power of a territory is governed entirely by one person, and whether Louis XIV (1638-1715), King of France from 1643-1715, really claimed to be the state or otherwise, it is typical of the legend of his much-contested absolutism.(1) Regardless of the legend, and despite appearances (especially the incredible palace at Versailles which Louis fashioned for himself, and the fine work of his Finance Minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), to present Louis XIV in a positive light for the attention of future historians), Louis XIV and the state were not one and the same.(2)

Three key points demonstrate that, whilst acknowledging the tremendous personal authority of Louis XIV, it would not be accurate to say that this notorious ruler oversaw an absolute monarchy. Louis’ real power, beyond the propaganda, was inextricably linked with corruption, coercion and compromise. First and foremost, in order for Louis XIV to raise the funds necessary for the state to operate (especially due to his penchant for waging war and maintaining an extravagant court), a complicated system of collaborative tax generation was essential. Secondly, Louis worked alongside nobles for mutual gain, and was quite accustomed to bribe them for even greater mutual gain. Thirdly, Louis, rather than steamrolling state institutions, was obliged to operate within limits and had a sense of how far to push his luck.

A taxing business

Louis XIV sought gloire and to strengthen France’s defensive borders.(3) Doing so was not cheap, and required that the population be taxed accordingly. But without the luxury of today’s efficient system of tax collection, gaining the revenues from across his domain was no easy task. Louis’ expansive France, drunk as it was on war without and prestige within, necessitated regional partnerships to enable the king to receive his dues.(4) Louis was content to turn a blind-eye to blatant siphoning of funds by his entrusted noble middlemen, because his only concern was the depositing of the bulk of the livres to Versailles.(5)

A classic example of the compromise system of tax collection demonstrates that Louis’ power was rather less than absolute, even when met with a seemingly simple task of tax collection. In Burgundy, a coalition, representative of the province, ensured that tax was somewhat efficiently collected and paid on time. However, in Normandy, where no such coalition existed, whilst the king could demand more tax, and in theory had more unchallenged authority, there was no mechanism for enforcing his will nor effectively collecting the revenue.(6) It was Louis’ noble tax collectors that really filled his coffers, not absolutism.

The nobles’ peace prize

Following a period in which popular unrest had manifested itself in France, Louis XIV moved to strengthen the acquiescence of nobles. Far from securing real absolute power for himself, Louis granted positions in government office to members of the higher order, along with a share of his mystical prestige, to ensure they would remain onside in the advent of further instances of revolt.(7) With regional political power sufficiently strong, no central authority could smother it.(8)

Louis XIV was not able to exert all-encompassing power, so he moved the center of courtly operations to Versailles from Paris, insisting the sycophants and hangers on took residence there. Under his watchful eye at Versailles – which John Merriman called “sort of a Euro Disney for nobles” – Louis was able to influence his courtiers and have unlimited fluid compromise readily available on tap.(9) Indeed, Louis XIV was not endeared to the realities of the game he had to play, noting to Voltaire, “Every time I create an appointment, I create a hundred malcontents and one ingrate”, which is indicative not only of Louis’ discontent with the system but, more to the point, that Louis was nethertheless obliged to operate within such a system.(10)

Louis engaged in many faire des compromis to achieve his regal grip on France, and one in particular is especially illustrative of the wider point of the check of compromise on absolutism and why it was done.  Louis, as a young prince, had seen first hand the Fronde rebellion (1648-1653), which, due to its chaotic, irreverential nature, made a strong impression on the future ruler.(11) In 1655, Colbert made sure not only to backtrack on plans to abolish the paulette (a tax levied by the French Crown), but instead continued to renew it in future years, in addition to also allowing further noble concessions. Colbert was conscious of not stirring up the ire of magistrates, who were consequently able to remain away from the direct, absolute control of the king.(12)

Intelligent compromise

James B. Collins drew attention to Louis’ “intelligent compromise” with the various political and socio-economical realities of his regime, noting that regardless of the power Louis held in theory, he would not be able to enforce an overhaul of customary law.(13) Louis was aware of the difference between his theoretical and practical power, and did not seek to, nor could he in any case, enforce absolute obedience, subject as he was to France’s lois fondamentales.(14)

An indictment of the lack of real absolute power Louis had is that whilst his elaborate rule appeared on the surface as a show of strength, beyond the glamour of Versailles, there were judicial officers utilizing the legal system to gently chip away at royal authority. This contrived game of theoretical power and compromise would be unmasked in the future when truly challenged, with historical, revolutionary consequences.(15)

To be sure, judges were concerned about the influence of Louis XIV in wider matters beyond their own goals. But for there and then, their posts were more important than their principals, and they were content to oblige him, safe in the knowledge that not standing in the king’s way would reap them other benefits. The king got his way, but via pragmatic politics, not because of absolute rule.(16) As Jeremy Black neatly put it, “Louis’ domestic power rested on uncertain foundations”.(17)

Conclusion

It is clear that Louis XIV was not an absolute monarch; there were simply too many practical obstacles in play for this to have been possible. Louis relied on coalitions for tax collection, who acquiesced out of self-interest, not out of deference. Louis played the noble game, for as subservient as he wished to make the higher orders feel by giving them the run around in the halls of Versailles, he required their assistance as a conduit for his rule. Louis had seen how pushing even nobles too far could cause an angry backlash, and Louis could not bend the entire state to his will, because even a powerful force such as the King of France could not ignore or move beyond the customs of law that existed in his domain.

Louis was an absolute showman, but he was not an absolute ruler, nor could he have been. Louis XIV, though pragmatism and the acceptance of political and socio-economic realities,was able to rule France, wage wars and bask in the glory of doing so. However, he and the state were not one and the same. His reign was undoubtedly powerful and historically significant, and for the average Frenchman, he was for all intents and purposes, the absolute ruler of legend. But in reality, and especially when it came to the less average Frenchmen who were smart and/or noble enough to understand the game, he could only be as absolute as the mutual concessions of his rule allowed. It was peace for the king’s time, via absolute appeasement.

Aidan

References

1 M. E. Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p.304.

2 J. Russell Major, From Renaissance Monarchy to Absolute Monarchy: French Kings, Nobles & Estates, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1997), p.365.

3 W. Doyle. France and the Age of Revolution: Regimes Old and New from Louis XIV to Napoleon Bonaparte, (London: I.B. Taurus, 2013), ProQuest ebrary, p.23.

4 W. Beik, ‘The Absolutism of Louis XIV as Social Collaboration’, Past & Present, 188, 2005, pp. 195-224, (pp. 201-202).

5 J. Collins, ‘State Building in Early Modern Europe: The Case of France’, Modern Asian Studies, 31, 1997, pp. 603-633.

6 W. Beik, ‘The Absolutism of Louis XIV as Social Collaboration’, Past & Present, 188, 2005, pp. 195-224, (p. 201).

7 S. Miller, ‘Absolutism and class at the end of the Old Regime: The case of Languedoc’, Journal of Social History, 36, 2003, pp. 871-898, (p. 873).

8 S. Clark, State and Status, (Quebec City: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995), p.41.

9 ‘European Civilization, 1648-1945’, Yale web site, http://oyc.yale.edu/transcript/571/hist-202, 8 September 2008, accessed on 5 November 2016. Note: this is transcript of a John Merriman lecture which is also available in audio form on iTunes University.

10 E. Knowles, The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p.475.

11 R. McCullough, Warfare, Coercion, Conversion and Counterinsurgency in Louis XIV’s France (Boston: Brill, 2007), ProQuest ebrary, p.53.

12 J. Russell Major, From Renaissance Monarchy to Absolute Monarchy: French Kings, Nobles & Estates, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1997), pp. 360-361.

13 J. Collins, ‘State Building in Early Modern Europe: The Case of France’, Modern Asian Studies, 31, 1997, pp. 603-633, (pp. 622-623).

14 S. Clark, State and Status, (Quebec City: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995), p.39.

15 J. Russell Major, From Renaissance Monarchy to Absolute Monarchy: French Kings, Nobles & Estates, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1997), p.366.

16 W. Beik, ‘The Absolutism of Louis XIV as Social Collaboration’, Past & Present, 188, 2005, pp. 195-224, (p. 219).

17 J. Black, From Louis XIV to Napoleon : The Fate of a Great Power, (London: Routledge, 2001), ProQuest ebrary, p.34.

The Aidan Project Podcast: The Man of the Year and The Führer

The Bitter Soviet Experience in Afghanistan

The implications of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan could pose the most serious threat to the peace since the Second World War. The vast majority of nations on Earth have condemned this latest Soviet attempt to extend its colonial domination of others and have demanded the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops.

Jimmy Carter, US President
January 23 1980

Afghanistan

This edition of the Aidan Project blog is a critical précis of Paul Dibb’s 2010 journal article, The Soviet Experience in Afghanistan: Lessons to be Learned, from the Australian Journal of International Affairs. Dibb, a former intelligence operative, now Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at The Australian National University, provided an insightful and reflective article, the conclusions of which remain prescient some six years later. Indeed, the future of the Middle East, with a new American President taking office in January of 2017, is as uncertain as ever. The article draws attention to lessons from history, which must not be easily dispensed with.

Whilst primarily examining the USSR’s war in Afghanistan, Dibb’s article further places the conflict in a broader context, also questioning the role the invasion had in the collapse of the USSR, and concludes in comparing the Soviet challenges in Afghanistan with those experienced by the Western allies. It should be noted that this article was published four years before the Western allies left Afghanistan, at a time when the exit strategy of the US-led coalition was a significant issue.

Dibb explains that the USSR became entangled in Afghanistan in April 1978 in an attempt to steady an unpopular coup d’état by Soviet-trained socialists. Enlightened as he is with information from Soviet archives and Australian intelligence reports, Dibb shines a light on the intentions, mistakes and legacy of what is represented within the article as a disastrous war.

The invasion, Dibb notes, was doomed from the beginning, detailing that a former Soviet ambassador had written in his diary that the invasion was a gross miscalculation. It is the theme of miscalculation that Dibb asserts was the reason for the invasion’s failure, inflicted as it was on a populace who did not support the communist mantra (including well-armed, resolute Mujahedeen), and a Politburo at home who were ignorant of the political situation on the ground. Dibb identifies that the Politburo read politics from the bible of Marx and Lenin, which offered little on navigating the tribal politics of a land they could in no way relate to.

Dibb reports that the primary motivation for the Soviets was its continuing desire to one-up its Cold War foe, the United States, during an era when Moscow was arguably the major power. A successful foray into Afghanistan, Dibb explains, could have secured the acquisition of ports in the Persian Gulf, and there were genuine concerns in Washington about Soviet ambitions.

As Dibb demonstrates, Moscow had a clear intention in committing to the invasion, and had achieved successful interventionist and expansive results in proceeding years. However, Afghanistan, as detailed by Dibb, was a step too far, because whilst the initial invasion itself was well organised, the ideology the Soviets were attempting to impose was akin to putting square pegs in round holes.

Indeed, as the war carried on, Dibb states that military leadership were calling for a withdrawal, but the concerns over the perception of doing so was anathema to the Politburo, regardless of the considerable loss of prestige they were already facing at home, where returning soldiers told their communities the reality of the conflict.

Dibb explains that the regime was experiencing a leadership crisis, with several changes at the top before Mikhail Gorbachev took the reigns in 1985. Gorbachev, asserts Dibb, was keen to end the disaster, but lacked an immediate plan, with the exit taking a further four years. However, Dibb elucidates that the USSR was on an economic deathbed, one from which it could not escape, regardless of the conflict in Afghanistan.

Dibb draws several parallels between the grim experience of the Soviets in Afghanistan and that of the US, and despite noting some differences, Dibb concludes that there is (was) a definite sense of history repeating itself; notably unconventional wars with little end in sight, causing a loss of face for the superpower involved. Dibb argues that comparing the US experience in Afghanistan to that of the USSR is far more appropriate than comparing it to the US war in Vietnam, noting a similar troop commitment. The irony of Dibb’s argument is that the Soviets followed the US debacle in Vietnam by its doomed gesture of invading Afghanistan.

In conclusion, Dibb’s article is a convincing account of the follies of an ill-conceived invasion in a forlorn attempt to mark one’s territory on the world stage. Dibb describes a disastrous overreach from a regime in crisis, especially one with such dire domestic problems, though Dibb explains that the war itself was not the direct cause of its demise, though it played its part. The essence of Dibb’s article is its culminating comparison of the Soviet experience to a later one by the US, for which it provides a cautionary tale on heeding the lessons of history.

Aidan

Further reading

P. Dibb, ‘The Soviet experience in Afghanistan: lessons to be learned?’ Australian Journal of International Affairs, 64, 5 (2010), pp. 495-509.

Film recommendation

9th Company, dir. by F. Bondarchuk, (Art Pictures Group, 2005).