When All the Options Are Bad:  Finland in World War II   [1939 CE – 1945 CE]

Over the centuries the history of the Finnish people has often been characterized by geographical contraction, political subjugation, and population dispersal.  Originating in Central Russia, they seem to have begun to migrate to what is currently Finland approximately 10,000 years ago.  Swedes started to move there some 800 years ago, and after about 200 years they took over, making Finland part of Sweden.

After a long history of conflict, Russia took Finland away from Sweden in 1809 CE.  Technically living in an autonomous region, the Finns became increasingly restive as Russia attempted to impose stricter rule. They finally declared independence in December of 1917.  A short civil war between Finnish Red and White factions broke out in the spring of 1918.  By May the Whites were victorious, confirming the break with Russia.

In the early 1930s it was clear that Finland would not be able to avoid involvement in the coming hostilities.  It was not necessary to know of the secret clause of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact [August 1939] ceding Finland to Russia to understand that Stalin had designs on Finland.  His apologists claim his November 1939 ultimatum offering Finland territory north of Lake Lagoda in exchange for lands on the Karelian isthmus near Leningrad and a base situated at the entrance to the Gulf of Finland was reasonable.  Perhaps in comparison with the U.S.S.R.’s annexation of the Baltic States it was.

Finland was caught between two monstrous evils:  Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany.  In 1939, Stalin had a clear lead over Hitler when it came to atrocities, including the Gulag, purges during the 1930s of the Communist Party and Red Army, and the man-made famine in the Ukraine, which alone probably resulted in over 7 million deaths [1932 – 1933].  The German accomplishments in crimes against humanity at the time paled by comparison, though they began to catch up quickly after they invaded Poland in September of 1939, even if the Soviet atrocity at Katyn is weighed in the balance.

The Soviets shelled their own village of Mainila in November of 1939, claiming the Finns were responsible.  Using this as a pretext, the U.S.S.R. invaded Finland on November 30th, starting the Winter War [1939 -1940].  They eventually committed about 450,000 troops.  The League of Nations expelled the Soviet Union for its transparent aggression.

The Soviet forces outnumbered the Finnish by approximately 3 to 1 in manpower, 30 to 1 in terms of aircraft, and 100 to 1 in terms of tanks.  Observers predicted a very short war.

They underestimated the Finns and the damage Stalin had inflicted on the Soviet armies.  Adroitly using lines of fortification, trenches, and highly mobile ski troops, the Finns demonstrated that they could inflict enormous casualties on the Soviet invaders.  One preferred way of doing so was skiing through the forest to attack the front and the rear of a Russian column on the road, immobilizing the soldiers in between, and then eliminating the Russian food transports and kitchens.  Exposure and starvation killed the invaders as effectively as bullets.

The Russian dead or missing numbered about 127,000 troops, with casualties exceeding 320,000.  The Finns suffered roughly 70,000 total casualties, with approximately 26,000 dead.

The Soviets paused, reorganized and, using improved tactics, occupied the territory Stalin had demanded and a bit more.  The Finns sued for peace.  A treaty was signed in March of 1940, ceding roughly 11% of Finland, representing about 30% of its economy, to the Soviet Union.  In return for their soldiers’ heroic resistance and Stalin’s disinclination to suffer further losses on this front, the Finns remained independent.

The English and French governments, though grossly ineffective and oblivious to any number of realities on the ground, called off plans to support the Finns and engage the Soviets once they heard of the peace treaty.

The Germans had observed with grim glee the ineptitude of the Red Army and the obtuseness of its command.   The Winter War encouraged the Nazis contemplating their drive to the East.  They attacked the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941.

Because of its border with the U.S.S.R., Finland could not emulate Sweden’s neutrality.  Alliance with the Nazis was profoundly distasteful and dangerous, but the Russians represented an immediate existential threat.  Fighting between the Finns and Russians restarted June 22nd 1941, the day the Germans began their invasion of the Soviet Union.  The Finns declared war on the U.S.S.R. three days later.  It was the only representative democracy to ally itself with the Axis during World War II.

The Finns called this second stage of their participation in World War II the Continuation War.  They retook the lands they had lost to the Russians in the Winter War, carefully halting operations on the line of the pre-World War II border between the Soviet Union and Finland, or the first defensible position beyond it.  The Germans were furious at Finland’s unwillingness to progress further, especially as the Finns were only 30 km from Leningrad [19 miles].   The Finns also appeared to have the capability to cut the Murmansk railway, by which roughly a quarter of Allied aid was delivered to Russia, but stalled when Germany asked them to do so.  The Finns were playing a long game.

Russia appeared to appreciate this fact.  When it became increasingly clear that Nazi Germany was losing the war, the Russians reconquered the territory Finland had retaken in the Continuation War.  But the Finnish Army stopped this Soviet offensive by July of 1944, possibly with the agreement of the Russian high command.  A ceasefire was announced on September 5th, and an armistice signed on September 19th.

Peace with the U.S.S.R. cost the Finns the territories they had lost in the Winter War, resulting in the flight of about 400,000 refugees from the lands taken over by the Soviets.

Approximately 214,000 German troops remained in northern Finland to protect access to the nickel mines near Petsamo.   Between September 1944 and April of 1945 the Finns expedited German withdrawal from their country.  The Germans adopted a scorched earth policy, destroying much of the northern half of the country.  Roughly up to 1,000 died on the Finnish side.  The Germans suffered losses of a similar magnitude in this Lapland War.

The Finnish experience during World War II was even more peculiar than it appears to be at first glance. Not only was it the only democracy allied with the Axis powers, it also maintained its military independence despite repeated attempts by the German High Command to integrate the Finnish army into the German chain of command.  Finland managed this despite being heavily dependent on Germany for food, fuel, and weapons.

Finland was also unique among European states bordering Russia in 1939 in that it was not occupied by 1945.  Only 3 European countries fighting in World War II did not have their capitals occupied at one time or another:  the United Kingdom, the U.S.S.R, and Finland.

Finnish Jews were not systematically persecuted, though 8 Jewish refugees were at one point handed over to the Nazis, an aberration for which a Finnish Prime Minister offered an official apology after the war.  Finnish Jews fought as members of the Finnish Army, which provided them with a field synagogue.

Against the odds, Finland maintained its independence.  Astonishingly, they paid off their renegotiated war reparations.

So what does the Finnish experience in World War II demonstrate?  Possibly that:

  • Neutrality is a luxury dependent on a degree of removal from the problem.
  • Hard fighting within strict limits can be more successful than suicidal idealistic courage.
  • Sometimes it is necessary to forge an alliance with the Devil.
  • Just because you are at war with somebody doesn’t mean you have to stop talking with them.


Further Reading: 

  • Allen Chew’s The White Death and Richard Condon’s The Winter War provide overviews of the Russo-Finnish conflicts in World War II.
  • The magnitude of Stalin’s atrocities still astonishes. Ann Applebaum’s Gulag provides a useful  summary, and her Gulag Voices collects testimony of Gulag prisonersVarlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales give a personal and artistic perspective to complement the essential but prolix Gulag Archipelago of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.


  • Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands usefully summarizes the problems and experiences of European states and peoples caught between Stalin and Hitler.

Gott Strafe England: World War I and Guilt [1914 CE – 1985 CE]

I remember my surprize as a boy to learn what enduring hatred two elderly German Americans I knew held for Great Britain and its role in World War I.  Gott strafe England [‘God punish England’] came from their lips with a bitterness that was not expected from a cheerful couple who had immigrated in the early 1920s CE and become loyal American citizens.

During the First World War [1914 – 1918] the husband had been a mariner deployed, among other places, in the Ukraine.  The wife experienced postwar communist and anarchist revolutions while working in the municipal offices of Munich. Communist guards used to amuse themselves by seeing if they could make her hurry or run for cover by firing machine gun bursts slightly behind her as she walked home from her job. She felt that her refusal to speed up probably saved her life.

My high school introduction to the history of the run-up to the First World War did not provide much insight. The events leading up to the start of fighting in 1914 were explained away as the tragic but inevitable results of secret diplomacy, German bullying, French pretension, hopelessly unrealistic dreams on the part of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires, and, incredibly, English and American altruistic idealism.

Later readings provided more plausible accounts of events. The assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 was by no means the sole reason for the outbreak of World War I, but as a proximate cause it merits attention.

Underappreciated points abound.  Among them, Franz Ferdinand’s visit to Sarajevo was planned in part because his Czech wife Sophie could there receive ceremonial honors that were denied her in Vienna because she was not of pure Germanic stock. Their car stopped in front of the 19 year old shooter Gavrilo Princip because of confusion regarding changes in the day’s agenda that had never been adequately communicated to the chauffeur.

Princip took the dubious honor of being the youngest person to trigger a World War by his actions away from George Washington, who had previously held the record on the basis of an unprovoked attack on an armed French diplomatic mission in 1754.  Washington was 22 years old at the time.

The key point, however, is that Serbia was deeply complicit in the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Serbian Colonel Dragutin Dimitrievich, in response to Austro-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, founded the secret society Ujedinjenje ili Smrt [“Union or Death”] in 1909.  The organization is more widely known as the Black Hand.  Dimitrievich was the real power behind the Black Hand’s covert operations, including assassinations. He was also head of Serbian military intelligence.

Austria and Germany were correct in blaming the killing of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on a Serbian conspiracy. Members of the Serbian Cabinet had known about the plot to kill Franz Ferdinand four weeks before the assassination.  Britain, when it joined the conflict, came in on the side of state-sponsored terrorism.

It is an oversimplification to say England by its participation in World War I pissed away world dominion in a misguided effort to uphold the putative honor of the House of Karageorgevich [“Black George,” the Serbian dynastic name], but there is uncomfortably more than a small kernel of truth in the observation. Britain sleepwalked into disaster.

Princip tried to kill himself with a cyanide capsule, which did not work, and by shooting himself before he could be captured. His pistol was wrestled away from him, and police kept him from being lynched by the crowd that had come to see the Archduke. Too young to be executed by the standards of Austrian law, Princip died of tuberculosis in prison in 1918.

Colonel Dimitrievich knew too much.  He was judicially murdered on trumped up charges by his own government in 1917.

The slogan “Gott strafe England” was the brainchild of the German Jewish poet Ernst Lissauer, a friend of bestselling author Stefan Zweig.  It was hugely popular in German speaking lands during the First World War, which generally agreed the conflict would not have spread so far nor lasted so long if Britain had not meddled in affairs it did not understand.  Lissauer also wrote the Hassengesang gegen England [Hate Song against England] which even during the war many felt went too far.

By 1916 both the slogan and the song were being mocked in English music halls.  The slogan gave rise to the verb “strafe” in English, meaning to attack ground targets with low flying aircraft firing automatic weapons. Lissauer was later deprived of his citizenship and expelled from Germany by the Nazis, dying in Austria in 1937.

Germany’s actions during the First World War are often viewed through the prism of Nazi atrocities of the Second World War. In many ways this is understandable. Much of the horrific behavior in World War II, on both the Axis and the Allied sides, had its origins in hatreds, grievances, and injustices exacerbated by the earlier conflict.  Auden’s poem September 1, 1939 is still an uncomfortable read in its prediction and explanation of German atrocities without any attempt to exculpate German guilt:

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

An impartial observer in 1939 could well assume the U.S.S.R. would be more likely to commit atrocities than Hitler and Nazi Germany:  Stalin’s reign of terror throughout the Soviet Union, and his genocidal attempt to starve Ukrainians [1932 – 1933, probably 3 to 7 million deaths], went far beyond any barbarities Hitler had committed at the time.  Stalin took an early lead in wartime crimes against humanity as well with the Russian murder of approximately 22,000 captured Polish officers at Katyn in the spring of 1940.

Americans often conflate the errors of the Wilhelmine German Empire with the evils of the Nazi regime.  Usually they tar the earlier Germans with the sins of the later.  One of the most striking examples of American ignorance regarding such matters, however, occurred in 1985 when Ronald Reagan visited the Bitburg cemetery in Germany, making the opposite mistake by honoring Nazi war criminals along with Imperial German soldiers of the First World War.

It seems Reagan wanted publicity similar to that accorded to recent visits of German and French leaders to World War I burial grounds.  Unfortunately, in addition to many WWI dead, the cemetery in Bitburg also contained the graves of 49 members of Hitler’s Waffen SS, including soldiers of a unit infamous for massacring American prisoners of war captured during the Battle of the Bulge.

Michael Deaver, White House Deputy Chief of Staff, should have sounded an alarm at the potential public relations disaster, but he was in a prolonged alcoholic stupor at the time, and focusing his energy on importing a German luxury automobile to the United States for his personal use while avoiding paying taxes on the purchase.

Deaver was fond in other contexts of explaining that Californians like himself did not bother much with East Coast intellectual concerns or history, to which we can add much less European.

Deaver attempted to justify the President’s laying a wreath at Bitburg saying “I mean, we won! The war’s over.  And they certainly have not tried to bury their past and have publicly recognized the atrocities and the horrors of Nazism.”

Reagan’s defense, which equated Nazi soldiers with victims of the Holocaust, was widely criticized:

“These [SS troops] were the villains, as we know, that conducted the persecutions and all. But there are 2,000 graves there, and most of those, the average age is about 18. I think that there’s nothing wrong with visiting that cemetery where those young men are victims of Nazism also, even though they were fighting in the German uniform, drafted into service to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis. They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.”

Deaver was convicted on three unrelated counts of perjury in 1987, for which he blamed his alcoholism. He was sentenced to 3 years of probation and 1,500 hours of public service.  He had worked over 18 years for Reagan.

Further Reading:

  • J. Goodspeed’s The German Wars, 1914 – 1945 provides a detailed and accurate narrative of the outbreak of World War I in Europe and the continuation of that conflict in World War II.
  • Norman Davies’ No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939 – 1945 is a useful if uneven corrective to views of the triumph of the Allies over the Axis powers as a simple morality play in which good vanquished evil.

Civil War Lessons:  Fort Pulaski and the Low Country [1862 CE]

The coastal lowlands behind the barrier islands of South Carolina and Georgia are often bleak country, not usually thought of in terms of innovation, much less as places where events conspired to make the redoubtable Robert E. Lee appear misinformed on a military matter.  The history of Fort Pulaski, which guarded the sea approach to Savannah, provides an example of a change in the practice of warfare that caught General Lee uncharacteristically flat-footed.

To this day much of the low country consists of undrained swamps sporting clear cut patches of sodden land where trees had managed to grow.  The area has largely escaped the Southern California-ization that has blighted swaths of the Old South, though nearby Hilton Head Island appears to be considerably down the road to being Disneyfied beyond the Magic Kingdom’s time-share resort mid-island.

Most tourists hold Fort Sumter in Charleston’s harbor to be the obligatory historical site in the area.  The events at Fort Pulaski during the Civil War were arguably at least as interesting.  Both forts were built as part of a national program initiated by James Madison after the British demonstrated the insufficiency of the United States’ coastal defenses during the War of 1812.

Fort Sumter famously drew the first fire of the Civil War on April 12, 1861 CE. Unsupported and unsupplied, its Union garrison surrendered 34 hours later.  In the spring and summer of 1863 Northern artillery reduced the fort to rubble, but the subsequent Union infantry attack was bungled, and the Confederacy surrendered the fort only after Sherman’s army marched through South Carolina in February of 1865, forcing abandonment of Charleston’s defenses.

When the war broke out, Fort Pulaski looked secure. It boasted masonry walls up to 15 feet [4.6 m] thick, carefully constructed over a 40 year period. Because of marsh surrounding the site, Union batteries could not be located closer than a mile and a half away [2.4 km].

No less a luminary than Robert E. Lee assured the 25-year-old commander of the fort , Charles Olmstead, that the Northern guns could not seriously damage the fort’s walls:  “… they will make it very warm for you with shells from that point [a mile and a half away] but they cannot breach at that distance.” Lee’s knowledge of Fort Pulaski was considerable:  before the war he had personally directed part of the fort’s construction [1829 – 1831].

General Lee was misinformed regarding the fort’s abilities to withstand a siege in 1862, however.

Union Brigadier General Quincy Adams Gilmore had followed the experimental development of Federal   rifled artillery carefully, and arranged to get advanced rifled guns for the attack on Fort Pulaski.  The Union gunners demonstrated the ability of their new artillery to punch holes through Pulaski’s masonry walls from batteries sited a mile and a half away despite Robert E. Lee’s assurances.  Lee was still operating under assumptions that applied to the limitations of contemporary smooth bore cannons, with their effective range of some 800 yards [approximately 0.7 km].

The Union artillery crews were methodical, using the newfound range and accuracy of their rifled guns to perforate circles in Fort Pulaski’s walls, then shooting out the middle to create sizable breaches.  The Union gunners fired through the holes they created, targeting the fort’s powder magazine.  Confederate capitulation followed swiftly.

It took more than 40 years to construct Fort Pulaski, and roughly 30 hours to force its surrender.

Savannah was as a result effectively blockaded by the Union.  Masonry fortifications became obsolete overnight.  Lee was called away to deal with dire threats to the north of the Confederacy.

After the Civil War the old rice producing regions of the area never really recovered from the liberation of the slaves who had managed the draining and flooding of the fields. Their skills were even more necessary than their forced labor.

Absentee plantation owners were not uniformly well served by their plantation overseers, who varied widely in knowledge and competence.   The lands were not improved by postbellum strip mining of fertilizer deposits.

The local indigo industry declined because of poor quality and high cost.

Even today, the economic benefits offered by the tourism industry do not penetrate far inland from the beaches of the barrier islands.


Further Reading:

  • James M. McPherson’s War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 provides a useful overview of the Civil War’s naval actions, demonstrating the usual strengths of the leading living historian of that conflict.
  • Roy Blount Jr.’s Robert E. Lee: A Life (Penguin Lives Biographies) is a balanced and nuanced brief biography of the renowned general all the more remarkable for its concision. At 210 small pages it cannot deal with Lee’s activities and campaigns in detail.  The effort Lee spent on Fort Pulaski’s construction is less discussed than his simultaneous social activities and courtship of the woman he was to marry, and the fall of Fort Pulaski is noted without mention of the reasons for or lessons from its surrender.  But as a humane, engaging and manageable introduction to Lee’s character, this slim volume is hard to beat.
  • Jack D. Coombe’s Gunsmoke Over the Atlantic: First Naval Actions of the Civil War provides a lively narrative of the fall of Fort Pulaski in its summary of critical early naval conflicts too often slighted in popular Civil War histories.


Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sects – Part II:  An Anglo-American View of Western Christianity’s Splintering [c. 1547 CE – 2017 CE]

[This is the second of two notes tracing the history of Western Christianity].

This brings us to Martin Luther [1483 CE – 1546 CE], the grumpy monk.

He got so angry at Tetzel’s sales campaign that he posted a list of financial, doctrinal and religious abuses of the Catholic Church on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg Germany on Halloween in 1517 CE.

A bunch of people had tried to reform the Catholic Church before.  Jan Hus [circa 1370 CE to 1415 CE] had started a vigorous reform movement in the part of the Holy Roman Empire known as Bohemia – the Czech Republic today.  Since this was eventually backed up by a well-organized military that featured a kind of horse-drawn tanks, the movement had some success before it was sold out by aristocrats who were bought off by the Catholic Church and its allies.

More usual were the sporadic peasant revolts against the financial exploitation and corruption of the Church and nobles.  The Church and nobles might disagree among each other as to who had the right to steal more money and have more power, but they were almost always tightly united against the peasants and the emerging middle class.

The revolutionaries, often called Anabaptists in the 16th century because many of them felt people should be baptized again as adults, as Jesus was by John the Baptist, were suppressed with incredible ferocity.

A temporarily successful Anabaptist revolution in 1534 CE in the town of Muenster, now known for a mild tasting cheese, resulted in wholesale slaughter by the aristocratic army that eventually took the city back.

But the Anabaptists were not always peaceful themselves.  One of their later leaders in Muenster, a former tailor, wound up marrying many women, like many of the Jewish leaders in the Old Testament.  One of these women laughed at the former tailor’s attempt to be recognized as a divine prophet.  He beheaded her in the Muenster town square.  I suspect his other wives kept their opinions to themselves after that.

When the aristocrats retook the town, the Anabaptist leader was locked in an iron cage and dangled off the town walls as a warning to other tailors who might get presumptuous ideas.

The Anabaptists surfaced again and again.  They are the spiritual and sometimes physical ancestors of the Mennonites who fled Europe to Canada, the American Great Plains, and Belize, where you can still see Mennonite women wearing long cotton print dresses and bonnets in the tropical heat.

Luther rightly saw rife corruption and superstition in the Catholic Church of his time.  And enough princes in Germany and other northern West European countries agreed with him to protect this fledgling Protestant religion – “protesting” the corruption of Christianity by the Catholic Church.  They agreed largely to keep the formerly Catholic taxes in their own territories.  So this time the reform of the Catholic Church, which had been gathering steam since the 1300s CE, really took off.

The Lutheran reformation resulted in a time of cuius regio, eius religio, meaning “whose realm, his religion.”  In other words, the local ruler got to set religious policy for his domains.  The proliferation and heterogeneity of principalities within Germany meant that most Christians could find a place to live and worship consonant with their beliefs.

Others were satisfied with adjusting their faith to their local conditions.  As a character in John Marston’s The Malcontent [1604 CE] replied when asked about his beliefs:  [I am] “Of the Duke’s religion, when I know what it is.”

Needless to say, when they heard Lutherans talk of freedom and fairness and honesty and fighting corruption, the peasants revolted again.  Luther joined the princes and churchmen of all major religious persuasions in condemning the peasants and supporting the vicious suppression of any attempts by these farmers to get a bit of justice [1524 CE – 1526 CE].

What did Martin Luther actually accomplish?  He broke the monopoly of the Catholic Church in Western Europe, and created a Protestant church that survived:  the Lutheran Church, often called Evangelical in Northern Europe.

He didn’t change the rituals or ceremonies much, except to translate them from Latin into the language of the people, in his case German, the development of which he strongly influenced.  He did try to get back to the Bible, and reduce the focus on Mary, the mother of Jesus.

And Luther wrote a nifty hymn in “A Mighty Fortress in Our God.”  He wound up marrying an ex-nun, and writing some amazingly scatological pamphlets.

And he provoked the Catholic Church into launching a Counter-Reformation that finally brought about most of the changes that reformers and Protestants had been trying to get for centuries.

The Catholic Counter Reformation started in earnest in 1545 CE.  But it was too late to stop the end of the Catholic Church’s monopoly on religious power in Western Europe, or reverse the Lutheran reforms in much of Northern Europe.

Common people were learning how to read and write – a trend the Catholic Church had fought for centuries – and most Northern princes were not about to start paying taxes to the Pope again.  The Catholics tried to undo Luther’s revolution in the 30 Years War of 1618 CE – 1648 CE, which left at least 10 million dead in Central Europe, especially Germany.

But the Catholic French came in on the Protestant side to avoid being encircled by the German and Spanish Catholic Habsburgs.  The Habsburgs controlled Spain, much of Italy, Belgium and some neighboring areas, and were threatening to take over all of Germany, much of it acquired through astute wielding of that deadliest of weapons, the wedding ring.

The 30 Years War ended in 1648 CE with the Peace of Westphalia, ironically negotiated in Muenster, the town of the Anabaptist revolt and its vicious suppression in the 16th Century.

One of Alexandre Dumas Père’s characters in The Three Musketeers summed up the Protestant-Catholic religious wars of the 17th century roughly as follows:  We’re fighting because we like to sing songs in Latin and the Protestants like to sing songs in French.

There is more than a slight element of truth to that description of the religious wars in France.  Conflicts between Catholics and Protestants kept civilized Europe busy for almost 200 years after Luther, and the Irish active even unto the present time.

The Counter-Reformation enabled the Catholic Church to hold on to the Latin speaking countries and some relatively backwards parts of Europe like the Slavic countries bordering Catholic kingdoms.  The Slavic territories nearest Russia often remained Orthodox.

But the magnitude of the achievement of the Catholic Church in just surviving should not be underestimated.  How many other organizations can claim more than 2000 years of operation?

It is no wonder Hitler studied its organizational principles as a model for his Thousand Year Reich.

Most important, Luther got people reading the Bible.  This was thought a better guide to the teachings of Jesus than the stories and traditions of the Catholic Church, many of which at that time had pagan origins.  Increased literacy ultimately was to have a profound effect on Western society.

Since every person had to read the Bible to be saved by God in Protestant lands, efforts were made for the first time to get every person to read and write.  This reinforced the scientific revolution in Protestant lands, especially England.

It was not that Protestants were more intelligent – Roman Catholic Italy probably had more scientists than the rest of Europe combined until the 17th century – but it was because Protestants were more literate, and their societies could transmit ideas more efficiently.

And the Italians persecuted their scientists in the name of the Catholic religion.  They hounded Galileo into publicly denying what he had discovered about astronomy.  They burned Giordano Bruno.  They threatened to kill people who suggested the earth revolved around the sun rather than the other way around.  Jesus was silent on this matter, but Catholic Church tradition was not.  And the Catholics made good on their threats all too often.

The Italian Catholic Church even persecuted a poor Englishman named Humphreys who had a circus act in which his horse Toby did addition and subtraction for the amusement of the crowd.  He earned lots of money in England and France.  In Italy the Church had him burned for witchcraft.

Witchcraft is a topic that deserves a detailed discussion of its own.  In part the witch-hunts were attempts to stamp out pagan survivals from the past.  In part they were local entertainment:  burning or hanging people whom the town didn’t like much anyways.  In part they were an attempt by local authorities to distract the populace from economic and political changes that were taking place.  But this note is already too long.

It is almost impossible to over-emphasize the importance of Protestantism in spreading literacy.  When I was a boy door-to-door Bible salesmen were still common.  You could always get rid of them, though, by saying “We’re Catholic.  We don’t read the Bible.”

John Calvin [1509 CE – 1564 CE] led a radical Protestant revolution in Geneva, Switzerland.  He fought corruption not only in the Church, but called for an unceasing battle against sin in each and every individual soul and mind.  This is where the Puritans got their inspiration.

Henry VIII of England at first defended the Pope against the Lutherans.  Then he decided to change his wife, and that story is well known.  This led to the creation of the Anglican Church in England, and its American counterpart, the Episcopalians.

Episcopalian means they have bishops, that survival of Roman bureaucracy.  They needed to emphasize this, because in the later 1500s and the 1600s a whole bunch of left-wing English Christians decided they could do without government bureaucrats in their churches.  This included the Puritans.

The Puritans felt Luther did not go far enough.  Charles I of England felt Luther went much too far.  They disagreed.  Charles lost his head in 1649 CE.

The Puritans who came to America were spiritual ancestors of the Congregationalists.  They did not want a universal church organized from the top down like the Catholic or Anglican model, with bishops telling them what to believe.  They wanted holy people to come together to form congregations for worship based on Biblical principles.  Some read the Old Testament more closely than the New Testament.

Similar people made up the bulk of Cromwell’s army.  Some felt Congregationalists went a bit too far, and there should be a group of leaders, though not bishops.  The Scots tended this way, and founded the Presbyterian Church, presbyters being the leaders.   Presbyter comes from a Greek word meaning “elder.”  They enjoyed meddling in other people’s lives and witch-hunts, not yet having fully developed the current Scottish passions for distilled whiskey and golf.

Others felt the Congregationalists did not go far enough.  The Quakers decided Jesus was a pacifist.  They were persecuted by Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists alike.  Their great leader George Fox, of the old leather breeches and the shaggy shaggy locks [1624 CE – 1691 CE] was thrown in prison 8 times between 1649 CE and 1673 CE, his health eventually broken by exposure to cold, the damp, and large quantities of human waste.

Roger Williams knew what he was doing when he fled Puritan Massachusetts for religious freedom in 1636 CE.  Another dissenter from the Massachusetts form of worship, Ann Hutchinson, was run off to New York, where Indians killed her in Westchester County [1643 CE].  She has a river and highway named after her.

A number of Quakers were executed for their beliefs in Boston.  The best known is Mary Dyer, hung in 1660 CE, a year after two of her Quaker friends were executed for their beliefs.  A statue commemorating her judicial murder can be seen in front of the State House in Boston.

Members of such Protestant minority traditions came to be known as Dissenters, and now include such sects as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Shakers, and by extension the Assemblies of God and arguably the Mormons.

By the 1700s people in England generally considered it to be tasteless to kill people over religious questions, unless the Irish were involved.  Much of this improvement in attitude can be traced to the influence of men like John Selden [1584 CE – 1654 CE], a leading English lawyer and legal historian of his day.

His posthumously published Table Talk [1689 CE] stopped many theological arguments and ignorant Biblical exegeses of the sort so popular in America today.  Selden noted the Bible may say something quite different in the Hebrew or Greek than it does in English, and that gentlemen were more temperate in their religious doctrines than the common crowd. We could use more men of his caliber today.  Then again, listening is not the strength of most American fundamentalists.

In the early 1800s the Congregationalists became more and more divided.  Some stayed Congregationalist, and others became Unitarians, people who believed in the unity of all aspects of God, including God the Father, God the Son Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.

Newton was probably a Unitarian by belief, but in his lifetime, 1643 CE – 1727 CE, you could still be butchered or barbequed in England for being a Unitarian, so he kept pretty quiet about the unorthodox conclusions of his investigations into religion.

Nowadays Unitarians tend to drive compact, hybrid, imported, and electric cars; support liberal social causes; experience liberal guilt; and often avoid talking about God at all.  They tend to emphasize development of individual values and morality rather than any defined set of beliefs.  In some ways modern Unitarianism is the next best thing to a religion.

With increased democracy, social mobility, and tolerance even the lower social strata were permitted to develop forms of Christian worship of their own choice.

Baptists were a 17th century offshoot of Congregationalism.  They usually followed the ideas of Calvin and one of Calvin’s followers, a Dutchman named Arminius.  In the early days they got caught up with Anabaptists and Mennonites.

The Americans have a number of Baptist Churches, including Southern branches that used to be very racist and anti-Semitic.  I guess they forgot Jesus was a Jew.

Methodism was started by John Wesley [1703 CE – 1791 CE].  He was Oxford educated, and a reformer of society as well as religion.  Like many believers of the Protestant denominations in the Dissenting tradition, he was very serious about Bible study and improving the lives of the poor and unfortunate.  When I was a graduate student I had dinner in his London home.

In the middle of the 19th century a Boston woman founded the Christian Science Church, which is an amazing hodge-podge of Hegelian Philosophy, Christian religion, and pseudo-science.  The woman, Mary Baker Eddy, managed to convince people that disease was all in your head, and that if you understood God and philosophy properly you would never get sick.

But she took medicine herself, and died [1821 CE – 1910 CE], so maybe she did not understand her own teachings well enough.  She helped found a great newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor, later run into the ground to fund an unsuccessful television station, and probably improved the American gene pool by convincing some really dense parents not to take their children to physicians.

Many of these children died needless, painful, horrible deaths that could have been easily treated by modern medicine.

But the Christian Science Mother Church and the crystal walk-in globe in Boston are testaments to her legacy.  Mark Twain left us writings with some choice things to say about Mary Baker Eddy and her church.

Today in America most of the Christian denominations are popularly characterized by the social-economic traits of their believers and their views on political matters:

  • Catholics:  In America now largely the descendants of French, Italian, Irish, Polish, and Hispanic immigrants.  In a low period following the clergy sex abuse scandals, in which Boston’s Cardinal Law played such a shameful part.  They dominate the current Supreme Court, however.
  • Episcopalians:  Upper class Anglo-Americans for the most part, reasonably wealthy, socially conservative but not rabidly right-wing, prone to wearing odd shades of pink, green, and yellow in the summer.
  • Presbyterians:  Still a strong Scottish influence, much local social prominence, tend to be good golfers.  An African Presbyterian convert named Alice Lenshina [1920 CE – 1978 CE] revived witch-hunts in East Africa [Northern Rhodesia / Zambia], but most American Presbyterians found that a little too old-fashioned for their tastes.  She died under house arrest.  They could not execute her, as the mother of the president of the country was one of her followers.  The government of Zambia still persecutes her Lumpa Church religious followers, who started a rebellion that killed thousands of people.
  • Baptists:  Largely working class and literal minded, often opposed to drinking and dancing.  The Southern Baptists are often very right wing and very literal about the English language Bible.
  • Methodists:  Usually a bit better educated than the Baptists.
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses, Assembly of God, Mennonites, Hutterites, Amish, etc.:
    Largely hard-working and serious people that ignorant college students like to make fun of.
  • African Zion Methodist Church:  The history of Afro-American Christianity is too rich and complex to adequately discuss here.  Christianity provided great comfort to the slaves, and inspiration to abolitionists around the world.  Many slaves focused on the sufferings of the Jews in bondage.  Many abolitionists focused on Jesus’ messages to help the needy.  The slaveholders found other passages in the Bible that justified slavery.  The Bible is not a consistent document.
  • Quakers:  The most consistently peace-loving of all Christians.  They refuse to fight in wars or enlist in the armed services.  They perform alternate service, often of a medical nature.
  • Shakers:  Dwindled to a couple of old ladies in the second half if the 20th Century.  No marriage permitted.  Started by a powerful and strange English woman called Mother Ann Lee in the late 1700s.  Active early in Harvard, Massachusetts and Niskayuna, New York.
  • Unitarians:  Upper middle-class liberals for the most part.

The modern spread of Christianity into Asia was largely carried out by European and American missionaries.  Converts in Japan were ruthlessly persecuted by the government, especially during the Tokugawa shogunate [1603 CE – 1867 CE].  Some were crucified.  In Nagasaki, the center of Japanese Roman Catholicism, the Church went underground.  After the Americans dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki [August 9, 1949 CE], new churches were built increasing the public presence of Japanese Christianity.

And all this does not even touch upon the heterodox Christian organization of the revolutionary Chinese movement, the Taiping Tian Guo, most active circa 1851 CE – 1864 CE.  Early in his life the man who was to become the supreme Taiping leader  flunked the Chinese civil service exam a couple of times, got really depressed, and then had a vision in which God told him he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, and that he should change things on earth.  Most of the Taiping leader’s knowledge of Christianity appears to have come from missionary pamphlets. By the time all was said and done, at least 20 million people died, though some argue that number should be closer to 50 million.

The story of how the organizers of a Christian rebellion in 19th Century China became heroes to the militantly atheistic Mao Zedong is interesting, to say the least.


Further Reading: 

  • Diarmaid MacCulloch’s History of Christianity: The First 3000 Years is, at a bit over 1,000 pages, a succinct, balanced, and scholarly introduction to its topic.
  • Finkelstein and Silberman’s The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts discusses many of the anachronisms and historical problems involved in study of the Old Testament, and the role of Josiah and his scribes in creating the document we know today.
  • Roger Crowley’s 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West and Steven Runciman’s The Fall of Constantinople 1453 are useful introductions to this seminal event.
  • Peter Heather’s The Restoration of Rome, which includes a cogent and well documented discussion of The Donation of Constantine, charts the evolution of the Roman Empire into the Roman Church.
  • Gregory of Tours’ [c. 538 CE – 594 CE] History of the Franks provides a delightfully detailed if highly idiosyncratic portrait of his times, full of damning anecdotes about the royal households he knew.
  • Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy has an incredible collection of stories set in a framework that is alternately magnificent and slightly ludicrous. The English translations do not do justice to the original.
  • R. Chamberlin’s The Bad Popes gives a lively account of some of the more colorful successors to St. Peter and the abuses that led to the Protestant revolt. Chamberlin’s basic thesis is that many popes squandered the Church’s spiritual authority by seeking to establish the territory of a papal state.
  • Bertrand Russell’s 1927 essay Why I Am Not a Christian should be required reading for all believers and skeptics alike.
  • Read William Rosen’s Justinian’s Flea for an introduction to early Byzantine theological and epidemiological history. It also covers architecture and politics.
  • Sherwin Nuland’s The Doctors’ Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story if Ignac Semmelweis provides a brief introduction to a problematic character and troubling incidents in medical history.
  • Marvin Harris writes on witchcraft from an illuminating sociological perspective in his collection of essays Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: The Riddles of Culture.
  • Anthony Arthur tells the tale of the Anabaptists’ takeover of Muenster, and their suppression, in The Tailor King.
  • The English Revolution and Commonwealth of the 17th Century were uncommonly prolific in terms of generating religious sects. Since the line between religion and politics was not entirely clear in many cases, it should not be surprizing that a political historian has written some of the most interesting books on the dissenting tradition of that time.   Start with Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution and his Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution.  Both Milton and Bunyan capture something of the spirit of the times: there are good reasons Paradise Lost was a bestseller in Russian translation during the 1905 Revolution, and that Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress has been a perennial international hit.
  • Richard Francis’ Ann the Word provides a biography of Mother Ann Lee and a concise narrative of the early days of the Shaker movement.