Saturday, June 23, 2007

BOOK: A. E. Waite, "Devil-Worship in France"

Arthur Edward Waite: Devil-Worship in France with Diana Vaughan and the Question of Modern Palladism. With an introduction by R. A. Gilbert. York Beach, ME: Red Wheel/Weiser, 2003. 1578632862. xxv + 305 pp.


In the late 19th century, a scandal erupted in France regarding a supposed highly secret society, the Palladists, who supposedly included as members a number of high-ranking Freemasons and who devoted themselves to devil-worship and all manner of unspeakable abominations. Books, pamphlets, and articles were written about them by people such as Leo Taxil (who claimed to have recently converted from devil-worship back to catholicism), one Dr. Bataille (actually Karl Hacks), and others. They received a fair amount of support and encouragement from various Catholic prelates, magazines, etc., as the Catholic church at the time was (at least in some countries, e.g. France) quite a virulently anti-Freemason organization. [However, Waite also points out that “the Church in its official capacity did not welcome, countenance, or tolerate the scandals which were devised in its name [. . .] she has no desire for the assistance of unsavoury confederates, self-constituted allies as they are” (p. 290).]

But A. E. Waite had good reasons to believe it was all bunk. He was a prominent British occultist, although this term is perhaps somewhat misleading; he refers to himself as a ‘transcendentalist’ (ch. 12, p. 167) in several places, which sounds like a more suitable apellation (although I'm not quite sure what its precise definition is in this context). When we hear the word occultism, we usually associate it with ghost-calling seances, lurid devil-worship rituals, and other such nonsense, and the impression I got from this book was that Waite had nothing whatsoever to do with that sort of things; he took occultism and mysticism much more seriously than that, and seems to have possessed a remarkable amount of robust skepticism, opposition to bullshit, and all-round rationality — much more than I would have dared to expect in a person who took (as Waite did) occult and mystical subjects seriously.

Anyway, Waite was quite knowledgeable about various sorts of things having to do with occultism, mysticism, freemasonry, secret societies, etc., and it didn't take him long to point out a number of weak points in the claims of Taxil and his collaborators. He published his findings, in 1896, in the book Devil-Worship in France, which probably helped hasten the end of the Taxil hoax. Taxil et al. would probably have preferred to keep up the pretence a little further; Waite argues (p. 231) that Taxil was basically a venal hack, whose writings fall squarely into the penny dreadful genre. Earlier in his career Taxil had written lurid anti-Catholic screeds, and now after his supposed conversion he was finding that anti-Masonic and anti-Satanic stuff was also selling quite well, and had no particular wish to end the hoax sooner than necessary. However, the pressure of skeptical questions such as those pointed out by Waite in his book made it impossible for Taxil to continue. Some of his writings were published as the supposed memoirs of one Diana Vaughan, an American woman, formerly a member of the Palladist cult but now, like Taxil, also a convert to Catholicism; and since nobody had ever seen this woman, more and more people were beginning to doubt that she had ever existed. Finally Taxil announced a press conference, promising that he would introduce Miss Vaughan to the public, but instead he then simply admitted that it had all been a hoax.

(Waite, meanwhile, had been working on a sequel to Devil-Worship in France; this sequel remained unpublished, partly because the hoax was over and partly because Devil-Worship itself hadn't sold very well and the publisher didn't want to risk with another book on the same topic. Thus, the first time that the sequel, titled Diana Vaughan and the Question of Modern Palladism, was published was in this 2003 Red Wheel/Weiser edition.)


All in all, this was a fairly interesting read. Waite debunks the hoax quite thoroughly, dedicating a chapter to each of the writers involved in it, and in each of these chapters he shows why that writer is unreliable, points out instances where the writer's claims are flat out wrong, etc. His style is sometimes a bit heavy on sarcasm for my taste; sarcasm in debunking is, in my opinion, incompatible with that charity that a decent author should show towards his opponents (although, of course, in this case one has to admit that the claims of Taxil et al. are so ridiculous and absurd that it's hard to blame Waite for indulging in a bit of sarcasm).

Waite mentions J.-K. Huysmans several times (a few years earlier, in 1891, Huysmans published a very well-known novel, La-bas, about satanism in contemporary France); the strange thing is that he consistently spells his last name “Huysman” instead of “Huysmans”. The editor of this 2003 edition has equally consistently emended this into “Huysman[s]”.

This 2003 edition also contains some footnotes which seem to have been added by an editor specifically to this edition, rather than having been a part of the original 1896 edition of this book. Many of them are quite helpful for a present-day reader who might not be familiar with the same things as Waite's contemporaries were. Here's a nice example from ch. 1, p. 9: Waite refers to Lucifer's “region of eternal fire—a variety unknown to the late Mr Charles Marvin”. A footnote explains: “Charles Marvin (1854–1890) was the author of The Region of the Eternal Fire, 1886, a study of the Russian petroleum industry.” :-)

The impressions of ‘Dr Bataille’, Taxil's collaborator, of Singapore, sarcastically related by Waite (ch. 7, sec. 6, pp. 93–4): “The English as a nation are criminal, but Singapore is the yeast-house of British wickedness, where vice ferments continually; there man masonifies naturally and most masons palladize.”

During Bataille's travels in Calcutta (ch. 7, sec. 5, p. 92): “a wild cat, which strayed in through an open window, was regarded as the appearance of a soul in transmigration, and, in spite of its piteous protests, was passed through the fire to Baal.” :)))

Among other things, one of the reasons to argue against the authenticity of Diana Vaughan's writings is her style, which is remarkably similar to that of the most fanatical French clerical writers, not something you'd expect in a recent convert to catholicism: “I submit that a volte face is possible, especially in religious opinions, but that a pronounced habit of religious thought cannot be acquired in a day” (ch. 8, p. 119).

A nice bit of poking fun at the silly stereotypes of devil-worship that were peddled around by Taxil et al.: “our poor old friend Baphomet, whom his admirers persist in representing with a goat's head, whereas he is the archetype of the ass” (ch. 8, p. 124).

There's some heavy-handed sarcasm in ch. 9, which debunks the writings of one Jean Kostka. “After a careful examination of his statement, which is exceedingly naive, I am tempted to conclude that he has never been near an abyss; he is innocent of either height or depth, and so far from having ever plunged into the infernal void, he has scarcely so much as paddled in a purgatorial puddle. His guilty transcendental experiences are in reality the most infantile afternoon occultism” (p. 130). Kostka interpreted “the Kadosch term Nekam, which signifies vengeance” as an acronym for “N (ex) E (xterminatio) K (risti) A (dversarii) M (agni), to wit: ‘Death, Extermination of Christ, the Great Enemy.’ Wicked and wily Jean Kostka to outrage the decencies of orthography and against all reason write the name of the Liberator with a K, thereby concealing the true meaning, which revealed for the first time is as follows:—N (equaquam) E (ritis) K (ostka) A (rtium) M (agister), which being interpreted still further, signifies that there was never such a clumsy device!” (But really, even I was outraged by the interpretation of K for “Kristi”. Surely everyone knows that the right spelling is Krusty. It's clear even to me that in Greek, Christ's name would begin with the letter chi, Χ, while the Latin letter K is from the Greek kappa, Κ, rather than from Χ, so it's a completely unrelated letter.)

Here's some more sarcasm against Kostka. I'm almost beginning to feel sorry for him :) “[A]ll known specimens [of ghosts] have been carefully labelled, except possibly the odorous ghost, the ghost, that is to say, who manifests exclusively to the olfactory organ. This is an exceedingly withdrawn inappreciable kind, but it is familiar to Jean Kostka, who is a connoisseur in the smell supernatural, and has a trained psychic nose.” (P. 138.) “On this occasion he tells us that he was inspired to pronounce one of his most wicked and dangerous Masonic discourses. Dear M. Kostka! Dynamite would lose its destroying power in his harmless hands.” (P. 139.)

Ch. 10 is about an Italian, signor Margiotta. At some point Margiotta describes having been present at a successful invocation of the devil: “It was managed by means of a whisky-bottle, out of which, after certain invocations and magical ceremonies, a vapour rose mysteriously, and resolved itself into a human figure, wearing a golden crown, with a brilliant star in the middle. [. . .] Signor Margiotta gives the names of all who were present at the evocation—twelve members of the 33rd degree, to say nothing of Misraim dignities. I submit, however, that the episode of the bottle would split the rock of Peter, that the absence of Signor Pessina for twenty minutes previous to the performance, eked out with a little ventriloquism, and some Pepper accessories would explain much, and that there is also another hypothesis which I will leave to the discernment of my readers, and to which I lean personally.” (P. 156.)

Interestingly, in ch. 14, p. 208, he writes “Phi” when he means “Fie”.

Is it worth $50?
[plus, a rant about freemasonry :)]

Incidentally, this is quite a handsomely produced book. It's set in Bembo, I think (judging by the shape of the capital ‘R’s), in type slightly larger than in your usual trade hardcover (though still not as large as in books that are explicitly intended to be large-type books). The paper has a fairly luxuriously-looking creamy colour. My only complaint is that it lacks an index.

So you will be getting a nice book for your money; but still, is it worth its recommended retail price of $50? Frankly, I'm not sure. Of course, this is a tiny sum if you consider how much it would cost to buy a copy of the 1896 first edition of Devil-Worship in France (copies currently offered on ABE are in the $250–$500 range). (Bizarrely, some of the sellers on ABE are offering the Weiser edition for sums like $70–$90, even though you can buy it from amazon (or from the publisher) for $50...)

There's another modern reprint, Fredonia Books, 2003, a paperback costing $25. This has about the same number of pages as the 1896 edition, so I suspect it's just a photographic reprint of that; I see no signs that it contains Diana Vaughan. I haven't been able to find much more about Fredonia Books; apparently they are a Dutch publisher, and their home page is currently suspended by their ISP (“Please contact the billing/support department as soon as possible.”). It seems they have published a large number of paperback reprints of out-of-copyright books in English.

Devil-Worship in France is also freely available on-line at

So from that point of view, the main selling point of this book would have to be the previously unpublished Diana Vaughan and the Question of Modern Palladism. To me personally, this is not really worth $50 (which is a lot of money for a book, after all — a downright unholy sum in fact, or it would be if Weiser were an ordinary trade publisher, which they clearly aren't or they wouldn't be setting their RRPs so high); it's a fairly short work and feels mostly like a supplement to Devil-Worship in France. Waite intended to publish it as a standalone book (but his publisher declined because the first book, Devil-Worship in France, hadn't sold well enough; p. xxi), but in my opinion the more decent thing to do would be to use the material to prepare an expanded second edition of Devil-Worship in France.

Besides, to me it seems that a considerable part of Diana Vaughan and the Question of Modern Palladism is not really so much about the Taxil hoax at all, but about Freemasonry, which Waite is trying to defend from the unreasonable prejudices and accusations against it that were so widespread within the catholic church at the time. I didn't find this terribly interesting. Although I can't say that I harbor any particularly ill feelings towards freemasonry, I definitely can't say that I feel any sort of sympathy for it either. As a rabid fan of egalitarianism, I cannot possibly approve of any kind of exclusive and secretive association; I'm firmly convinced that nothing good can come of such societies; at best they will do no harm, but then secrecy and exclusivity are inherently harmful by themselves, as far as I'm concerned. Their obsession with degrees (33 or whatever number of them they have), though which one is supposed to ascend or something like that; and their obsession with ridiculous and absurdly pompous titles (grand/sovereign commander/inspector/etc. — it really takes the fricking KKK to out-do them in silliness of titles — and anyway, couldn't they just cut through the bullshit and simply wear a plaque around their necks saying “my prick is so-and-so many inches long” — that's what it's all about after all, isn't it?) also doesn't appeal to me at all — things like that will inevitably lead to delusions of elitism and meritocracy, which is contrary to my principle that everyone should be equally well off and considered equally valuable, regardless of his or her efforts and achievements.

And anyway, according to the ideas of a noted U.S. freemason, Albert Pike (ch. 5, p. 270), there is supposed to be a religious basis of freemasonry, namely “natural religion, the sum of light which the intellect unaided by revelation is supposed to reach”, and among these beliefs they include the “existence of a God [as a person! thus, no pantheism] and the immortality of the soul” (p. 267). Pike believed (p. 270) that any view which excludes these beliefs (e.g. atheism, I guess) makes it more or less impossible to endure life (with all of its problems) and retain a sense of happiness, hope and perseverance. But surely there is much that is wrong about these claims. They seem like the same stale old arguments against atheism that the church itself has probably peddled since time pretermemorial. If little else, these claims aren't particularly true; I personally may indeed be despondent and miserable, but I don't think that most other atheists are particularly unhappy. And besides, Pike seems to be arguing that his beliefs should be shared by others because such beliefs are expedient, not because they are true. This is silly; yet more lying to oneself, inventing answers to questions one doesn't really know the answer to. And his claim that the existence of a personal god and of immortal souls are somehow self-evident and “natural” is even sillier. I cannot have much regard for an organization founded on the basis of beliefs like these.

Anyway, there's nothing worth $50 in Diana Vaughan and the Question of Modern Palladism, if you ask me. Fortunately I bought the book on ABE for $25, which is a little better; although on second thought, if I had to say now, after I've read the book, how much it was really worth, I'd say $10 or maybe $15 at the most.


  • If you're just interested in the lurid allegations made by Taxil, Bataille et al., just jump directly to Chapter 7 of Waite's book.

  • I first heard of this book in Sprague de Camp's Ragged Edge of Science, which includes a chapter about the Taxil hoax.

  • I'd be very curious to read Bataille's book itself (Le Diable au XIXe Siècle), but I don't understand French, and it doesn't seem to have been translated into English. But then again, one can probably find plenty of perfectly good tripe of the same sort on numerous modern-day conspiracy web sites :)

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Our regularly scheduled advertising break

This arrived in the mail today:


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Yeah, what's a measly $5 million between friends.

i am a citizen of Liberia based in Cote D'Ivoire presently,we have also timbers&Diamond in commercialq quatity for sale at below lnternational price.

Timber and diamonds? Also, freshly plucked chickens, rolex watches, ready-to-transplant human kidneys, and anatomically correct teddy bears. And an award (from the Nigerian Scammers' Chamber of Commerce) for the most ridiculous combination of items sold by a single company.

We have cricks of Lands in Kempamas about 750km distance from Monrovia Capital city under develop.Partnership is needed also if you are interested.

I call your Cricks and raise you a few Watsons...

P.S. Pity they don't have any of that proverbial Mali beachfront property...

lf you are interested or have somebody in need of Gold please contact me on +###-####-#### or through this email.

You want people (or, well, alien demigods) in need of gold? I'm sure Mr Sitchin can help you get in contact with the Anunnaki... :))


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Saturday, June 09, 2007

BOOK: J. S. Weiner, "The Piltdown Forgery"

Joseph S. Weiner: The Piltdown Forgery. Fiftieth anniversary edition, with a new introduction and afterword by Chris Stringer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. 0198607806. xx + 212 pp.

In the years around 1910–1916, several interesting fragments of old bones were discovered near Piltdown in England. Some of these were pieces of skulls and jawbones supposedly belonging to a previously unknown type of hominid, the ‘Piltdown man’. The skull was fairly similar to that of modern humans, but the jaw was much more like that of an ape, which suggested that the fossil belonged to just the kind of ‘missing link’ the existence of which was widely suspected by the anthropologists of the time, but of which no fossils had until then been found. It became widely accepted and lauded as an important discovery.

However, as the years went by, many new fossils of early hominids were discovered in various parts of the world, but none of them resembled the Piltdown man. It became clear that the Piltdown man cannot possibly be a missing link between modern humans and their ape-like ancestors; it could only have been a dead end, a standalone branch of the evolutionary tree, quite isolated from what had been going on elsewhere within the human family.

Little by little, even this began to seem untenable, and finally in the 1950s some experts were becoming ready to consider the possibility that the Piltdown fossils may have been forgeries. In view of this, they went to re-examine the finds, which they were anyway in a much better position to do than had been possible at the time the discoveries had first been made, given that both the knowledge of early hominid development and the technology for the study of fossils made considerable advances in the intervening 30 or so years (p. 71).

Their conclusion was that the Piltdown man is undoubtedly a hoax; one of them, J. S. Weiner, then wrote this book (first published in 1953), describing not only the results of their study of the Piltdown fossils, but also what he had been able to learn about the circumstances in which the fossils were discovered and of the people involved in those events.

This isn't a bad book, but I can't say that I was totally thrilled while reading it, either. This is probably not the book's fault but mine; I'm just not that interested in the details of this subject. Although the book is relatively short (about 200 pages), I often felt that the author was giving more details about something than I really cared to listen to. I guess I'm just not that interested either in paleontological technicalities or in the numerous people involved in the story of the Piltdown hoax — a large number of paleontologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, etc., both professionals and amateurs, make an appearance here, and I find that trying to keep them all straight would require more concentration than I was willing to expend at the time. But for someone more keen on this subject, I'm sure the level of detail would be delightful. Even I was impressed by the details on some occasions; e.g. in chapter 4 the author describes a number of chemical tests carried out on the Piltdown fossils, and shows how a jawbone and a skullcap, supposedly belonging to the same individual, gave widely different results in one test after another, which clearly indicates that they couldn't possibly both come from the same individual (p. 39).

The book also gives us some glimpses into the social aspects of how British paleontology functioned in the early 20th century. I found this rather fascinating; I was impressed by the large number of people involved in this, not just professionals but also all sorts of amateurs, dilettantes, collectors: people who had a normal job during the day, and then went, in their spare time, tinkering around with old bones and making excavations, writing up articles and presenting them to the numerous learned societies. This is charming for several reasons; firstly, because we see that at that time it was still possible for amateurs to make worthwhile contributions to science (which is probably much less likely nowadays); and secondly, because we see that people at the time were actually keen to take up this sort of work as a hobby. It seems fairly unimaginable to me that nowadays anyone would consider research into some dull, obscure, dry, pedantic subject as a suitable subject for a hobby. But I guess that in those days, when they couldn't waste their time by watching television and blogging, they nearly couldn't help doing something more worthwhile instead, such as performing paleontological research.

A worker involved in some of the early Piltdown excavation has a very curious name: Venus Hargreaves (p. 79). Despite the name, he was a man. What were his parents thinking?!

The jaw of the Piltdown ‘man’ was, as it turned out, really the jaw of an ape. There's an interesting discussion on pp. 97–8 about how the forger might have obtained it: “they could be bought from, or through, a local taxidermist, or, if not, then easily enough from one of the famous London firms. [. . .] Mr. Gerrard tells me that unmatched jaws and other odd bones were probably easier to come by in the years before World War I than now. [. . .] Odd bits of the skeleton, such as teeth and mandibles, were cheap enough in those days. Ape and human jaws could be easily come by and many geologists had them.” Ah, this almost makes one wistful for the good old days when the sun never set over the British empire and monkey jaws were easily come by, unlike now when regulations, democracy, decolonization and international wildlife protection treaties spoiled all the fun :))

At some point, Dawson (the man who would later discover the Piltdown fossils) bought the apartment that had until then been rented by the Sussex Archaeological Society for their meetings, and he “soon afterwards served upon the Secretary formal notice that the Society was to terminate its occupation of the premises by midsummer 1904” (p. 158). This is another of these charming little details — by midsummer, not e.g. by July 1, which is what we would probably do nowadays. Apparently people at the time were still aware of these traditional points of the year, the ones that are actually linked to astronomical phenomena, unlike now when we are more or less completely indifferent to them.

Incidentally, Dawson apparently had quite a wide range of interests and made a number of curious, and sometimes spectacular, finds (pp. 161–3), such as the “ ‘Toad in the Hole’ ”: “This is a petrified toad in what is actually a hollow nodule of flint [. . .] the toad when young must have got into the nodule through a small hole and found enough insects to enable it to grow until it became too large to get out again.” (P. 163.) And in 1915, he experimented with “ ‘flaming’ bullets — phosphorescent anti-Zeppelin bullets” (p. 163).

In a way, the Piltdown mystery remains unsolved; we still don't know for sure who the hoaxer was and what exactly was the motivation for the hoax. As the author discusses in the last chapter of the book and in the epilogue, it would be difficult to interpret the evidence in a way that wouldn't find Dawson guilty of participating in the hoax (pp. 177–9, 185). For example, several of his subsequent discoveries appeared just at the right time and were just of the right character to clear up some bit of doubt or skepticism that had arisen regarding the previously discovered fossils (p. 198). But it isn't clear who else was involved besides Dawson (if anyone).

This edition of the book also contains an interesting afterword, written in 2003 by one Chris Stringer. He briefly mentions various other theories about the Piltdown hoax that have been presented in the fifty years since the first publication of the book. “Indeed, the joke that the only participant shown in the fading Piltdown photographic archives not to have been named as the forger is ‘Chipper’ the goose is now close to the truth.” (P. 188.) Even Stephen Jay Gould contributed a theory (in 1979–80, “proposing that Teilhard de Chardin conspired with Dawson, initially as a joke, which then got out of hand”, p. 191).


I don't really want to read much more about the Piltdown hoax, but just in case, here are a couple of interesting-sounding books mentioned in the afterword:

  • F. Spencer: Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery. 1990.
  • F. Spencer: The Piltdown Papers: 1908–1955. 1990.

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Saturday, June 02, 2007

BOOK: V. G. Liulevicius, "War Land on the Eastern Front" (cont.)

Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius: War Land on the Eastern Front: Culture, National Identity and German Occupation in World War I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 0521661579. viii + 310 pp.

[Continued from last week.]

Comparison of the Eastern and Western front experience

There's an interesting discussion of difference in the soldiers' front experience between the west and the east front: in the West you have “men and machines battling in devastated trench landscapes. By contrast, the experience on the Eastern Front was quite different, its hallmarks the fight against invisible enemies of boredom and alienation, losing oneself in the landscape, going native. [. . .] a struggle for community and identity in vast expanses.” (P. 135.)

“A frontier thesis of the German East would be radically different from that of America's pioneer West. Instead of myths of individual independence and self-sufficiency, producing democratic views, the collective goal here was ordering, cleaning, and control.” (P. 162.)

Goals of the Ober Ost administration

Verkehrspolitik's ultimate end was permanent possession of these lands through some form of settlement.” (P. 94.) Various societies and lobbying groups existed in Germany, calling for the annexation of these occupied areas in the East (some argued that such predominantly agricultural areas were needed in order to “ ‘balance’ gains of industrial areas in Belgium and northern France”, p. 95; see also p. 165). Ludendorff's assistant von Gayl wrote that “depopulated areas of the territory would be filled in with a ‘human wall’ of new German settlers, securing it for all time” (p. 95). “Settlers could not be bourgeois Germans, but rather soldiers turned into farmers on the model of medieval ‘fighting farmers’ (Wehrbauer), holding the land with ‘sword and plow.’ ” (P. 96.) Again I'm impressed by how similar these plans sound to those of the Nazis in the WW2 (see e.g. Burleigh, p. 447). [Incidentally, now I tried googling the phrase ‘sword and plough’, and the very first hit points out that they are “both traditional metaphors for the penis”. Uncle Sigmund would be delighted... :-))]

“From the start, nationalist and imperialist pressure groups formulated increasingly ambitious territorial wish lists. [. . .] As hopes for quick victory [in the first years of the war] dimmed, war aims demands perversely grew larger” (the claim was that the difficulty of winning the war shows that Germany needs more territory there so as to be able to win more easily in any future war); p. 164. As mentioned above, demands for territory in the east were also supported by claims that “industrial gains [of territories in Belgium and northern France] needed to be ‘balanced’ by expansion into agricultural territories in the East.” (P. 165.) Annexationist views were especially popular among the middle and upper classes, “for whom expansion and world power” promised to “preserve the status quo, while a compromise peace threatened revolutionary turmoil” and a revolt of the workers disappointed that nothing came of all the sacrifices they had made (p. 165).

“The most portentous outcome of Ober Ost was a far-ranging transformation of outlook, growing out of the eastern front-experience, marked by struggle with nature, filth, boredom, and inner dislocation in the difficult work of ruling the occupied territory. [. . .] The imperialist mindscape surveyed dirty lands and peoples, and saw itself imposing a new ordering through German Work” (pp. 171–2.) “[A]nnexationist propaganda, ‘War Geography’ and ‘Geopolitics’, and military schooling of the mind created a new and aggressive geographic consciousness.” (P. 172.) This affected the German attitudes towards the East in the interwar period and during the WW2. The Ober Ost “collapsed just when triumph seemed secured. This disappointment blinded many to this military state's contradictory nature. Instead, the occupiers drew from this failure lessons about the East.” (P. 219.) Similarly to the ‘stab in the back’ legend on the Western front, “a parallel legend arose, with the East as the treacherous party contaminating Germany” (p. 219). The German public felt that “Germany had in fact won the war in the East. Only later did incomprehensible events rob Germany of its eastern conquests. [. . .] As Golo Mann points out, ‘Brest-Litovsk has been called the forgotten peace, but the Germans have not forgotten it. [. . .]’ ” (Pp. 248–9.) But “one central lesson was learned from failed plans for structuring, framing, and ordering the East: instead of planning for cultural development of lands [. . .] the East was to be viewed more objectively and coldly, in terms of Raum, ‘space.’ ” (P. 252.)

The end of the Ober Ost

The beginning of the end of the Ober Ost came in 1917, when the “growing discontent in Germany expressed in the stirrings of parliamentarism and strikes, meant that the outright annexationism [. . .] needed to be replaced with more subtle, indirect forms of domination over a belt of buffer states at Germany's east.” (Pp. 177–8.) By then, the Ober Ost regime lost all its credibility with the natives; one of the last nails in the coffin was when it stopped trying to maintain order and protect the peasants from various robber bands operating in the countryside (p. 181). “The breaking point came when natives felt that German occupation was even worse than Russian rule.” (P. 181.) There was also increasing discontent among the German soldiers: “Orders against fraternization [with the natives] lapsed in the face of everyday reality. [. . .] Some, increasingly influenced by socialist ideas, [. . .] resented having to preserve the [Baltic] Barons' social dominants. [. . .] many could not see that Balten were ‘German to the core’ and thus had a right to support. As class lines reasserted themselves, the solidarity of a common ethnic German identity was breached.” (Pp. 187–8.)

Thus, the Germans tried to get various more or less representative assemblies in the Baltic countries to declare independence from Russia and also to agree to turn themselves into German satellites (see e.g. pp. 203–4). Some of them were intended to be in a personal union with Germany (i.e. they would get someone from the house of Hohenzollern to be their sovereign); p. 202. For Germany, they would primarily serve as buffer zones, as a first line of defense against Russia or Poland; they would have to let Germans station their troops there, Germany would control their transportation and communications, they would be economically connected to Germany “by common currency, standards, and a customs union” (p. 203). Being “ ‘considerably below Germany economically and culturally, [. . .] they needed firm, authoritarian leadership’ ” [von Gayl's words] for one lifetime; this would be provided by a German “governor who was also supreme commander of German occupation troops” (p. 203).

It didn't all go quite as people like Ludendorff and von Gayl planned. For example, the Lithuanian assembly, the Taryba, invited a Duke of Urach to become King Mindaugas II (named in honour of Mindaugas, the first king of Lithuania, who lived in the 13th century); but they set out conditions: “the state was to be a democratic constitutional monarchy, with a Lithuanian government, and the king and his family had to become Lithuanians, speaking the language at court. [. . .] the children were to be educated in Lithuania, becoming Lithuanian. Gentle, democratically minded Urach accepted, and spent the summer [of 1918] learning Lithuanian. [. . .] These insubordinate moves raised an uproar in Germany's press” (p. 210). The Lithuanians withdrew their invitation to Urach a few months later, when the war was over.

After the war was over, revolutionary uprisings broke out in Germany and in reaction to them, volunteer paramilitary units were sometimes formed, called the Freikorps, consisting partly of conservatively-minded war veterans and partly of “German students and other adolescents too young to have served in the army during the war” (p. 227). Some of these units also fought in the area of the former Ober Ost, ostensibly for such reasons as to help prevent these areas from falling under the control of the Bolsheviks, either the Russians or homegrown ones (pp. 228–30); in practice they often turned out to be “adventurers” and “freebooters” (p. 228) loyal to nobody except their immediate commanders (“little Wallensteins”, p. 230). They joined the adventure either out of disappointment over the confusion in post-WW1 Germany, or lured by promises of land grants (p. 230); they “arrived hoping to find an identity here [but] were thrown into confusion and madness instead, as the mission in the East turned into a rampage [. . .] They returned to Germany brutalized, scared by a failure they could not accept or explain, and filled with intense hate for the East which had transformed them” (p. 228). (Unsurprisingly, many later went on to notable roles in the Nazi regime; see the list in the Wikipedia page).

The Freikorps units in the Baltic “surrendered to pathological anger and lust for annihilation”, e.g. they “staged massive acts of arson, turning parks and orchards into enormous bonfires for recreation, pouring gasoline on trees and setting them alight” (p. 242).


The famous battle of Tannenberg in 1914 was so named by Ludendorff for propaganda reasons (this was a big German victory, so it seemed good to make it seem like a revenge for their big defeat in the other Battle of Tannenberg, in 1410); p. 15.

There's an interesting paragraph about the medieval Baltic Crusades, waged by the Teutonic knights against Lithuania (which was still pagan at the time). “In a brutal version of the ‘Grand Tour,’ crusaders from the West came to fight, including Chaucer's Knight. The Order of the Teutonic Knights' ‘Lithuanian Way Reports,’ essentially Baedeker guides for pillage and rapine, allowed crusaders to raid with accuracy from south and north.” But this pressure “backfired, actually forging anarchic Lithuanian tribes into a state.” (P. 36.)

In the 19th and early 20th century there were many debates about where the borders of Germany are (or should be); but “[t]he crowning horror to these questions was that Germans' word for border, Grenze, was not even German, but borrowed from Slavic, graniza.” (P. 166.) Frankly, I don't think this is quite so horrible as this passage makes it seem to be, and if any Germans lost much sleep over this it serves them right for making such a fuss over such an irrelevant bit of etymology. But anyway, it's interesting that they borrowed such a basic word as that. At any rate, I'm always glad to see that it wasn't always us borrowing their words — that sometimes they also borrowed words from us :)

Sven Hedin's book To the East! is a result of his visit to the Ober Ost (p. 117).

There are a few mentions of Gustav Noske, a German politician on the “right wing of the socialists” (from his Wikipedia page, which you should also visit for the sake of a priceless picture of Noske and Ebert in bathing costume :-))) noted for his suppression of the leftist revolutionary uprisings in Germany in 1919. I chiefly remember him because he is mentioned in David Clay Large's Where Ghosts Walked, who says that one slightly unhinged member of the short-lived Bavarian revolutionary regime wrote that “the hairy gorilla hands of Gustav Noske [. . .] are dripping in blood”. Now I see that this is quite appropriate (as an added bonus, he was a master butcher by trade, according to the Wikipedia); in his position as the minister of defense, he authorized the formation of the Freikorps units: “This fratricidal duty earned Noske his nickname — ‘Bloodhound.’ ” (P. 227.) “When a Lithuanian socialist appealed to SPD leaders to speak out against the army's abuses, for love of shared socialist ideals, Noske reportedly answered: ‘We are socialists only up to Eydtkuhnen’ on the East Prussian border.”

As is known, the Baltic States became independent after the WW1 but were occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939; “native peoples at first congratulated themselves bitterly on at least having fallen to the Russians, not to the Germans. Remembering Ober Ost's regime, people contrasted Russian rule, brutal but unsystematic, with the comprehensive, efficient severity of German occupation. The following year of intensifying Stalinist terror and deportations, turned this cold comfort into a crueler joke.” (P. 266.)

An interesting observation on the new field of ‘geopolitics’: “Whereas geographers traditionally sought objective renderings of conditions on the ground, geopoliticans' maps, full of dynamic arrows, stark contrasts of blocks of color, and simplified symbols, were programs.” (P. 255.) “Geopolitical thinking took on enormous significance as a mode of thinking, providing concepts which became current in popular thought”, but that doesn't mean that the geopoliticians themselves were directly influential: “After providing crucial concepts, geopoliticians had little influence on policy built with those concepts.” (P. 264.)

Interestingly, the author consistently uses German names of the towns in the Ober Ost (e.g. Wilna, Kowno).

I feel compelled to record for posterity a truly disgusting instance of hyphenation: on p. 163, “Burgfrieden” has been split over two lines with “Bur-” in one line and “gfrieden” in the next line. Yuck.

There are also some typos, perhaps more than you'd expect in a book with a RRP of $75. There's “refered” on p. 185; and von Gayl “burned the original plans to present their capture” (p. 202).


This is a pleasant, interesting, readable book. Highly recommended if you want something to remind you that the WW1 was not just about the trenches of Flanders :-)


  • Arnold Zweig: The Case of Sergeant Grischa. A “great realistic novel” of Ober Ost, “culminating in an indictment of the entire system of military rule” (p. 76).

  • Victor Jungfer: The Face of the Occupied Territory. A “novel of life in the rear areas” (no, you sick fucks, NO!!!). Mentioned here on p. 156. However, it doesn't seem to have been translated into English. The original title is Das Gesicht der Etappe.

  • Celia Applegate: A nation of provincials: the German idea of Heimat. Mentioned here on p. 174 (note 68).

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Friday, June 01, 2007

Three cheers for Arte

Arte is a cable TV channel with a focus on arts and culture. It's one of the few things that make me regret that I understand so little German, and no French at all; most of their programme seems to be in French with German subtitles, so I don't watch it very often.

But last night, by sheer chance, I caught a marvellously bizarre film on Arte; fortunately it was shown in the original English, with German subtitles that weren't difficult to ignore: a 1968 film called Vixen!, directed by one Russ Meyer who is apparently a cult filmmaker (I'd never heard either of him or of the film before, but that's not really surprising given my scant knowledge of film history).

The bizarre thing about the film is the mixture of topics in it. Most of the film is a mildly X-rated story of a seriously oversexed young woman named Vixen (I bet that incest had rarely looked that much fun on film before :)), but at the same time, especially in the last third or so, the movie explores much more serious subjects: one of the protagonists is a black draft dodger from the U.S. (the movie is taking place in Canada), who repeatedly becomes the victim of Vixen's rather shockingly racist comments; another protagonist is an Irish communist who attempts to hijack an airplane and get himself flown to Cuba. (For a more thorough synopsis of the story, see this review.)

Anyway, I have no idea why the filmmakers decided to mix such disparate topics into a single movie, but the result is delightfully weird and certainly a lot of fun to watch. Thank you, Arte, for bringing this obscure gem of a movie to my attention :)