The Threat of the Lilliputians:  The Small Nation Danger in Central Europe 1918 CE – Present

In 1914 CE, the disaster of the Tannenberg Campaign confirmed for many of the Russian people that their government was fundamentally incompetent as well as astonishingly corrupt.

When in 1917 the Russian peasants figured out that the paper currency the government was issuing was worthless, they stopped providing food for the cities and armies, and the government of the Russian Empire collapsed.

The German and Austro-Hungarian empires, starved and impoverished by Allied blockades, and less and less capable of dealing with increasingly large numbers of fresh American troops on the Western Front, lasted a year longer.

In March of 1918 the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk marked the end of World War I for Russia, though the fighting in the East scarcely paused.

The Russian Civil War [1917 to 1922] overlapped with the Russo-Polish War [1919 – 1920].  Poland tried to conquer the Ukraine, and Soviet Russia tried to extend its western borders to their pre-war positions while exporting socialism of an international variety.  Poland won the final battle at the gates of Warsaw.  By the time its civil war ended, Russia was shorn of approximately one-third of its productive land and one-third of its population.

The German victory over Russia and subsequent Allied victory over Germany resulted in a welter of relatively small states, organized largely on the basis of ethnicity, running from the Baltic to the Mediterranean and Black Seas.  These countries, including Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Albania, and Bulgaria, reaped major benefits from the untidy end of World War I in central Europe.  But none of them were powerful enough to defend their gains in the neighborhood of an embittered Germany and an aggrieved Russia. Belarus, which declared independence in 1917 only to be conquered and assimilated by Soviet Russia in 1919, exemplifies the problems all would face to a greater or lesser degree.

The weakness of these small states might not have mattered so much if the League of Nations had been able to guarantee their security.  But the Americans, who had worked so hard to create this multi-national organization, failed to join or support it. It has been said that the times were not propitious for diplomacy, but Germany and Russia could agree diplomatically on how to overcome their considerable differences in order to remove Poland from the map of Europe again, as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 and subsequent events demonstrated.

The Turkish expulsion [1914 – 1923] of ethnic Greeks from Anatolian and Pontic lands they had inhabited for over a thousand years did not inspire confidence in the willingness of great powers to defend the principles of national sovereignty.

The English and French abandoned the Czechs to the Germans at the Munich summit in 1938.  The Poles, who were high on Germany’s acquisition list, helped themselves to a sliver of Czechoslovakia at that time.  Poland’s turn to be dismembered came soon, following German agitation regarding the Danzig Corridor between East Prussia and northeastern Germany.

The United States of America appeared to learn about the dangers of leaving Central and Eastern Europe chock full of states too weak to defend themselves from the failures of the peace treaties ending World War I and American participation in World War II.  The United Nations [founded in 1945] and North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO, founded in 1949] with strong American support appeared to be successful in preventing the outbreak of major international  hostilities in Europe after World War II until the breakup of Yugoslavia [1989 – 1992] began anew the metastasis of small states in the region.  Russia’s counter to NATO, the Warsaw Pact [1955 – 1991], usually kept the small countries on Russia’s western perimeter quiescent.

After the Second World War, several small or recently revived nations on or near Russia’s western border made the mistake of believing American governments would aid them in their struggles for true national independence and freedom from Russian domination.  This worked out badly for Hungarians [1956], Czechs [1968], the non-Russian residents of Crimea [2014] and the Ukrainians [2014 and following], to name a few.

The signal failure of European powers to effectively manage the replacement of Yugoslavia by six small states paled in comparison with the utter futility of Western European efforts to affect the dissolution of the Soviet Union into 15 independent states in December of 1991.

After Germany reunited in 1990, the United States of America could not resist the temptation of trying to extend NATO membership to some of the minnows on Russia’s western and south-western frontiers. Some of the lessons of World War I, learned at great cost in World War II, seem to have been forgotten by America.

A mutual defense pact between a superpower and a former province of the Russian Empire is not merely asymmetrical.  It is an ambush waiting to happen, perpetually threatening to maneuver the great power into conflicts with Russia over issues that are not key strategic interests, however important they seem to be to the Lilliputians.

In other words, the small states offer intractable problems but little in the way of benefits to their Western protectors, but leaving their well-being to the untender mercies of their great power neighbors runs the risk of detonating another World War.  In early August of 1914 it was a common witticism in Western Europe to note that Serbia was a very small country, minimizing the severity of the problems that might arise from Serbia’s complicity in the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  Wiser heads replied that nevertheless it would be a very large war.

Since the conclusion of World War II Americans might have learned that they can have a leading role in a world free of major conflict if they exercise responsible and engaged leadership, or a spurious freedom by retreating into isolationism.  Americans cannot have it both ways.  But this is a lesson Americans resist learning, and are quick to forget.

Further Reading: 

  • Peter Vansittart’s Voices 1870 – 1914 and Voices from the Great War present the history and culture of Europe from the Franco-Prussian War through the end of World War I by providing observations and comments of contemporary artists, politicians, soldiers, and civilians. His pointillistic portrait of Europe’s somnambulatory stumbling into the path of self-destruction is deft, illuminating, and tragic.
  • J. Goodspeed’s The German Wars provides among other things a useful summary of developments between the wars, set in a context that illuminates their continuity.
  • Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry transforms he author’s experiences during the Russo-Polish War of 1919 – 1920 into short stories that are masterpieces of that art.
  • Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin [2012] reevaluates the history of the nations caught between Germany and Soviet Russia in the 20th

The Tannenberg Campaign [1914 CE ]

Most of the Russian generals did not learn much from their catastrophic defeats in the Russo-Japanese War [1904 CE – 1905 CE].  Their failure to do so became obvious to all in the opening weeks of World War I [August – September 1914].

Russia’s leaders had pledged to assist France with attacks on the Eastern Front to divert Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire should France request aid for its struggles on the Western Front.

French strategic and tactical shortcomings guaranteed such requests would come early and often:  during the Battle of the Frontiers [August 14 – 24, 1914], Germany inflicted more casualties on the French in a single day than the French had suffered on any other day in French history.  The Russian leadership honored their pledge to help France by attacking the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires repeatedly during the war, ever ready to sacrifice Russian blood to honor pre-war diplomatic agreements of dubious worth.

Invading Germany from Russia looked relatively straightforward in 1914.  The two countries shared a long border on the southern and eastern sides of Prussia, since Poland was suffering one of its periodic disappearances from the map of Europe as World War I began.

The fact that the Russian invasion routes ran through geography used by Germany for summer military training maneuvers, and that the terrain was highly suited to defensive traps and ambushes, did not give the Russian command significant pause.

Even the notorious bad blood between the Russian generals Samsonov, heading up the invasion of Prussia from the south, and Rennenkampf, heading up the Russian invasion of Prussia from the east, was not held to be an insuperable problem. The two generals had come to blows at the railway station in Mukden [now Shenyang] during the Russo-Japanese war. The generals could not agree on how to help each other as the Japanese attacked the city.

Russian generals not supporting one another was not a problem limited to the opening campaign of WWI.  The Russian General Brusilov, who had come up with effective tactics against entrenched troops by the summer of 1916, saw his offensive grind to a halt when Russian generals bordering his section of the front refused to reinforce his attack.  They also declined to learn Brusilov’s techniques for success.

The Germans learned everything they could from Brusilov’s attacks, which were based on briefer but more carefully aimed artillery barrages than normally used, specially trained shock troops, and broad rather than deep breakthroughs.  The broad breakthroughs did not leave bulges in the line surrounded by enemy territory:  such bulges were vulnerable to encirclement and destruction by the defenders. The Allied troops on the Western Front soon had to deal with successful German infiltration units using Brusilov’s tactics.

Gross negligence and incompetence in Russian communications during the Tannenberg campaign ranged from use of trivial cyphers easily decoded by the Germans to codes that could not be understood by the Russian recipients of the messages.  Most notorious were the uncrypted radio transmissions of Russian battle plans shortly prior to the main fighting.

The Russian strategy was to crush the German defenders between the Russian southern and eastern pincers, which between them had roughly twice as many men as the Germans.

The Germans, benefiting from the slow pace of the invading forces, interior lines of communication, radio intercepts, and intelligent use of railroads, withdrew most of the defending forces in the east in order to surround and annihilate the Russian army attacking from the south before returning north to chase Rennenkampf’s troops back across the border. The Germans suffered between 10,000 and 15,000 casualties. The Russians lost around 170,000 men, including about 78,000 killed or wounded, and 92,000 prisoners of war. The Czar’s forces also lost a huge amount of equipment and war materials, including hundreds of artillery pieces.

Samsonov’s suicide during the retreat of his shattered forces did not appreciably affect the battle. The Russians quickly built up another army to attack Prussia from the east.

It is hard not to reach the conclusion that the overwhelming German victory in the Tannenberg campaign owed more to Russian mismanagement than German military brilliance.  Hindenburg and Ludendorff would doubtless disagree.  This was, after all, the battle that brought them to prominence and made their later careers possible.

As a result of their victory in the Tannenberg campaign of 1914, the Germans learned that not even Russian bravery or sheer numbers could overcome the breathtaking incompetence of Russian leadership.

The Germans developed a contempt for the Russian military that was reinforced by the poor performance of Soviet forces in the Russo-Finnish War of 1939 – 1940.  This contempt was a crucial factor leading to Germany’s overconfident overextension during the invasion of Russia in the Second World War, and ultimately to crushing defeat and occupation of Germany by the Allied Powers.

Further Reading: 

  • Barbara Tuchman provides a useful and generally accurate overview of the outbreak of World War I in The Guns of August. Regarding the German intercept of Samsonov’s uncrypted radio transmission of Russian battle plans, she enthuses “No such boon had been granted a commander since a Greek traitor guided the Persians around the pass at Thermopylae.”  Perhaps, but McClellan’s receipt of Lee’s detailed orders for the movements of the Army of Northern Virginia as it invaded Maryland in the American Civil War [September 1862] comes close [Special Order 191, also known as the Lost Order, or the Lost Dispatch].  McClellan mismanaged the Battle of Antietam despite having received details of Lee’s plans.  McClellan simply could not coordinate his attacks. The victory he won at Antietam was far less complete than it should have been, though it did provide occasion for Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.


  • Norman Stone’s The Eastern Front 1914 – 1917 usefully summarizes the First World War in the East from its inception to the Russian Revolution.
  • The Tannenberg campaign has been the subject of a number of monographs. John Sweetman’s Tannenberg 1914 provides a clear narrative, numerous maps, contemporary photographs and illustrations, and useful indices.

Why England?  The English Revolution and Science [1640 CE – 1660 CE]

When teaching in Southwestern China in the 1980s, I occasionally asked my more advanced students why the number of people in China studying English was so much larger than the number of people in English-speaking countries studying Chinese.  After all, England is tiny, only slightly bigger than Shandong Province.  In terms of area and population, Sichuan Province alone was significantly larger than England.

Many of their responses boiled down to the proposition that England was very good at war, which contributed to the creation of the British Empire with exploited colonies around the globe.    When pressed further, they said England’s military prowess was because England experienced the Industrial Revolution before China, which in turn was because England had been the first nation to benefit from the Scientific Revolution, usually referring to the career of Isaac Newton [1643 CE – 1727 CE] to buttress their argument.

To which I would answer with examples of Chinese science and engineering that often preceded Western practice by hundreds of years, including:

  • Crossbows [5th Century BCE]
  • Belt drives [5th Century BCE]
  • Paper [300 BCE, used for toilet hygiene by 589 CE, and for money by the 9th Century CE]
  • The blast furnace [3rd Century BCE]
  • Deep drilling for natural gas as fuel [2nd Century BCE]
  • Ball bearings [2nd Century BCE]
  • Theory of blood circulation [2nd Century BCE]
  • Compass [lodestone compass by 83 CE; with magnetic needles by 1088 CE]
  • Seismographs [132 CE]
  • Paddle wheel ships [418 CE]
  • Iron chain suspension bridges [6th Century CE]
  • Printed books [by 868 CE]
  • Gunpowder [9th Century CE]
  • Inoculation against smallpox [10th Century CE]
  • Printing with movable earthenware type on paper [11th Century CE]
  • Two-stage rockets [1360 CE]

I would offer to provide further examples but those usually sufficed.

Joseph Needham’s masterpiece, the multivolume Science and Civilization in China, has fostered modern awareness of China’s magnificent pioneering contributions in a wide variety of fields, including mathematics, physics, mechanical and civil engineering, paper and printing, metallurgy, ceramics, botany, agriculture, and medicine.

Historians refer to “The Needham Question,” which asks why Chinese scientific creativity seems to have ended suddenly in the early 16th Century CE.  In other words, why didn’t the modern scientific revolution take place in China?

Scholarly responses to that question have suggested that:

  • Old China’s traditional denigration of hands-on work limited experimentation.
  • Unlike European powers, China lacked neighboring nation states to foster competitive generation of new ideas and technology.
  • Chinese bureaucracy killed entrepreneurial spirit, preventing the development of a strong merchant class that would adopt and disseminate technical improvements.
  • The Chinese simply stopped trying. In the Yuan [1271 CE – 1368 CE], Ming [1368 CE – 1644 CE] and Qing [1644 CE – 1911 CE] dynasties, they could not get ahead anyway.  The Yuan Dynasty was Mongol; the Ming was totalitarian even by Chinese standards; the Qing Dynasty was Manchu.
  • The Chinese got smug.  They were so used to being preeminent in Asia they became incurious, and tried to ignore the more advanced ways of Westerners who showed up on their shores in increasing numbers in the 17th and 18th Centuries CE. Chinese Imperial attempts to bully and bluff the foreigners backfired badly, resulting in a loss of the prestige that the assertions of the superiority of the Middle Kingdom were supposed to enhance.

One leading Sinologist, Nathan Sivin, has expressed doubt about the usefulness of further pursuit of answers to “the Needham Question” to explain why the Scientific Revolution did not happen in China: “What did happen was the emergence of early modern science in Europe. It is Europe that needs to be understood.”

In terms of the Scientific Revolution in Europe, England needs to be understood most of all.  Copernicus did not foster a Scientific Revolution in Poland; Galileo did not lead to a Scientific Revolution in Italy. What set England apart?

The key seems to be the English Revolution of the 1640s, when middle class gentry and merchants overthrew the not very competent government of Charles I, resulting in that monarch’s beheading and the creation of a Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell.

The revolutionaries’ radical Protestantism was crucial, not because of any direct correlation between Protestantism and scientific genius, but because of the link between Protestantism’s emphasis on universal Bible reading and widespread literacy.  The widespread ability to read and write in England made it possible to disseminate and implement scientific advances in that country.  The Mediterranean lands lagged:  as late as the Napoleonic wars [1803 CE – 1815 CE] the illiteracy of Italian sailors shocked the men of the British Navy.

Following the success of the English Parliamentarians in the Civil War, there was a purge of royalist academicians at the universities.  This effectively removed the impediment of Aristotelian professors, thus helping to advance knowledge.

Francis Bacon’s [1561 CE – 1626 CE] emphasis on empiricism and inductive logic, and his dedication to The Advancement of Learning [1605 CE], could not have contributed as much as they did to the Scientific Revolution if education in England continued to be dominated by those who felt all answers could be found in ancient Greek and Latin authorities.

It should be noted, however, that Bacon’s logic sometimes led him to unfortunate conclusions, as when he was charged with taking bribes from both sides in a highly contentious issue he was supposed to resolve.  Bacon defended himself by saying that the person complaining about bribery had not received judgment in his favor, which meant that the money he had given to Bacon had not affected Bacon’s decision, and therefore had to be considered a gift, not a bribe. The King and Bacon’s opponents were not persuaded.

The Scientific Revolution needed a literate, bourgeois, practical social infrastructure in order for it to take root and grow.  The English Revolution of the 1640s provided the environment required.   When Newton married mathematics to the empiricism of early modern science, he brought the components of the scientific method together in a post-revolutionary England that was ready for it, having already assimilated profound changes in its social, political, and belief structures.

The upheavals of the English Revolution, Civil War, and Commonwealth resulted in a polity accustomed to change, and capable of conceiving and accepting, within certain limits, the implications of the new scientific manner.  The Scientific Revolution could only progress beyond a small circle of intellectuals after a revolution had broken the limiting paradigms of traditional thought and learning in the wider society.

It is common but none the less accurate to note that at the beginning of the 17th Century, most consciousness in England was at least half Medieval, while by the end of the 17th Century, most was at least half Modern.  When attempting to chart the course of the Scientific Revolution in England, it is necessary to first analyze the political and religious developments that paved the way for its success.

Further Reading: 

  • For China’s scientific contributions, see Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China. He raises “the Needham question” in Volume 7:  The Social Background, Part 2, General Conclusions and Reflections as well as Chapters 5 and 6 of The Grand Titration:  Science and Society in East and West. For a condensed introduction to the topic, see Robert Temple’s The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery and Invention. Nathan Sivin’s argument that efforts to explain what did not happen in China were beside the point can be found in China Review International 2005.
  • Christopher Hill’s Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution Revisited and The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution deal with the complex issues of the recasting of England’s mentality during the 17th Century.  
  • R. Gardiner’s multi-volume History of the Great Civil War and History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, The Puritan Revolution 1603 -1660 are still in many ways the finest narrative histories of the period.
  • P.V. Akrigg’s The Jacobean Pageant delivers a refreshingly non-hagiographic portrait of Francis Bacon in its overview of England during the reign of James I.
  • John Henry, The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science gives a broader perspective to the English achievements.
  • Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is still worth reading, no matter how many undergraduates have misused his concept of paradigm changes.
  • One radical take on the ultimate fate of the English Revolution is outlined in James Harrington’s The Commonwealth of Oceana. H. Parry’s Trade and Dominion: European Overseas Empires in the 18th Century illuminates many of the long-term effects of England’s 17th Century changes.

Cardinal Richelieu Saves German Protestantism: The 30 Years War [1618 CE – 1648 CE]

The Habsburg family, originally from Switzerland before it became entrenched and powerful in Austria, was unrivalled in its use of that most deadly of dynastic weapons, the wedding ring. This enabled them to surround France with an eclectic group of Habsburg land holdings in the late 16th and early 17th centuries CE.  France, arguably Europe’s most powerful nation at the time, fought to break the Habsburg encirclement for generations.  One curious outcome of this effort was the emergence of a French Prince of the Catholic Church as a savior of German Protestantism.

The Habsburgs held the throne of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation from 1438 to 1740.  This ramshackle political entity covered most of Germany, Austria, and the Low Countries, as well as much of Italy and portions of the Slavic lands abutting German-speaking regions.  Originally founded by Charlemagne in 800, by the 15th Century the Holy Roman Empire consisted of an incredibly complex mixture of autonomous principalities, Habsburg family lands, bishoprics, and autonomous city-states.   It had failed both as a German nation and as an imperial power over the Italians and Slavs.

As no revenue was associated with the title of Holy Roman Emperor, the Habsburg family monopoly on the elective position was usually tolerated without much dispute.  Unless dominated by a leader of the stature and strength of Charlemagne or Otto I, Germany was too large and diverse to be effectively united much less governed for long with the communications and administrative tools available to Medieval and Renaissance European rulers.  France was about the maximum size capable of being efficiently managed in the West in those times.

Habsburg fortunes took a dramatic turn for the better in the late 15th and early 16th Centuries.  Like most marriage-based triumphs, it developed in a circuitous manner, and deserves a bit of explanation.

Louis XI of France, the “universal spider” [reigned 1461 – 1483], was attacking Burgundian holdings in the Netherlands.  The Burgundian heiress married the Habsburg Maximilian, heir-apparent to the German Empire, for protection. Their son, named Phillip, married the only surviving child of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, a woman named Joanna.  Phillip died young.  Joanna went spectacularly mad, and was declared incompetent.  Phillip and Joanna’s son, Charles V [of the Holy Roman Empire, he was also Charles I of Spain] inherited among other lands Spain, Spain’s colonies in the New World, the Habsburg lands in Germany and Austria, the wealthy Netherlands, and much of Italy.  Vast quantities of precious metals from the Americas and armies of tough professional Spanish infantry seemed to promise further success for the House of Habsburg. The most pernicious effects of inbreeding that were to result in the multiply handicapped Charles II, Spain’s last Habsburg monarch [1661 – 1700], lay in the future.

The French immediately apprehended the danger of being surrounded by Habsburgs in Germany, the Low Countries, Spain, and Italy, and attacked Habsburg holdings in Italy, mostly without success.  They had slightly better luck in the Low Countries and Germany, but a series of weak French kings and religious disputes resulting in a massacre of French Protestant Huguenots [1572] sidelined France in the second half of the 16th Century.

At about the same time, Phillip II of Spain bungled the handling of a revolt in the Low Countries, resulting in the creation of a strongly Protestant Dutch Republic [firmly established by 1594 – 1607] as well as English legends about the Spanish Armada [1588].  The ability of the Dutch to resist Spanish aggression until the cost became prohibitive for the largest empire in the world is no less remarkable in hindsight than it was to contemporaries.  Goethe’s friend Friedrich Schiller wrote about it in his Geschichte des Abfalls der vereinigten Niederlande von der spanischen Regierung [History of the Revolt of the United Netherlands from Spanish Rule].

But even more serious trouble began in Germany and Central Europe in 1618 with the Defenestration of Prague.  A Bohemian Protestant crowd threw three bullying Catholic Imperial officials out of a window to the street 70 feet below [21 meters].  The officials survived their fall either through miraculous intercession by angels or the Virgin Mary, or as a result of landing on a dung heap.

This incident sparked the Thirty Years War [1618 – 1648], which resulted in at least 8 million deaths.  Traditionally this conflict has been seen as a fight between the Protestant German princes and the Catholic forces of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II.  Ferdinand had hopes of becoming the first Holy Roman Emperor since the Middle Ages with effective centralized power.  Without France’s subsidies and direct participation on the side of the Protestants, the war would have ended much sooner, with a very different outcome than reached in the Peace of Westphalia [1648].  France was not fighting for religious reasons.

The first serious stages of the war were successful Habsburg attacks on Bohemia and its northern Protestant allies, greatly enhancing Habsburg land holdings and power.  A second round of attacks on the Baltic region thoroughly alarmed the German princes, Protestant and Catholic alike, as well as the Swedes, who held some territories in the area.  The German princes might not be able to agree on religion, but they were united in their opposition to the idea of a Holy Roman Emperor with real power.  By threatening the Habsburg succession, they convinced Emperor Ferdinand to draw back.

But France’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Richelieu [1585-1642], had different ideas. War in Germany absorbed Habsburg energies and offered intriguing possibilities for France to break the ring of Habsburg encirclement.  Richelieu subsidized the Protestant Netherlands in their fight against the Spanish Habsburgs and the Lutheran Swedes against the Austrian branch of the family.  Although he became a Cardinal in 1622, Richelieu’s early training had been military.  He had joined the Church and become a bishop to protect family income when his older brother became a Carthusian monk, renouncing worldly possessions with a serious vow of poverty.

Richelieu found a willing instrument for his strategy in the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus.  The Swedes cut a meteoric path through The Holy Roman Empire with brilliant successes at the battle of Breitenfeld [1631] and in Bavaria, until their costly victory at Lützen [1632] resulted in the death of Adolphus.  Their utter defeat at Nördlingen [1634] resulted in the German princes and the Habsburgs agreeing on terms for a general cessation of hostilities.  Richelieu saw a new effort was necessary to keep peace from breaking out.  France declared war, coming to the aid of the German and Swedish Protestants.

The Swedes regrouped in northeastern Germany and began winning battles again. The French and Dutch pressured Imperial forces in the northwest of Germany.  Spain began to encounter serious problems.  Catalonia, threatened with higher taxes, seceded from Spain and asked France for help.  Richelieu was delighted to oblige.  Portugal, unhappy with the state of its colonies since it had been unified with Spain, revolted. The French army destroyed irreplaceable Spanish prestige and troops at the battle of Rocroi [1643].

The new Emperor Ferdinand III [reigned 1637 – 1657] opened a peace conference in Westphalia, making it clear that he was no longer pursuing Imperial Catholic goals.  It took four years of negotiations before the terms were agreed upon and the conflict stopped, but there was no doubt about who the victors were in 1648:  France, Sweden, and the German Protestant princes. Richelieu died six years before his victory was sealed by the Peace of Westphalia, which also laid the foundation for the development of the secular West European state.

Despite his prolonged campaigns that resulted in the preservation of German Protestantism, Richelieu could demonstrate implacable opposition to Protestants who threatened French domestic stability.  He declared suppression of the Huguenot’s revolt to be the first priority of the kingdom.  During the siege of La Rochelle [1627 -1628], Richelieu acted as commander of the French troops when the King was not present.

Zhou Enlai, when asked if he were more Communist or Chinese, replied he was more Chinese.  Cardinal Richelieu, if queried as to whether he were more Catholic or French, might, if maneuvered into an honest response, have identified himself as more French.  His actions in the Thirty Years War indicate a mind that had moved beyond confessional polities and dynastic landholdings to grasp the essence of the modern nation state.


Further Reading:

  • Perhaps the best introduction to the Thirty Years War in English is Peter Wilson’s The Thirty Years War.
  • Grimmelshausen’s Simplicius Simplicissimus, the best-selling novel of the 17th Century, gives a contemporary view of the Thirty Years War that in many ways has never been bettered.
  • Brecht’s Mother Courage is a dramatic fable set in the same conflict, which some modern German polls rank as the worst disaster the country has ever experienced, including bombing, invasion, and defeat in the Second World War and occupation thereafter.
  • Alexandre Dumas provides a rousing if historically inaccurate picture of the times in France in The Three Musketeers and its sequels.
  • Geoffrey Parker’s The Dutch Revolt offers a lively overview of its topic; Jonathan Israel’s The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall 1477 -1806 provides context and perspective.

Astoria:  Accidental Long-term Success    [1803 CE – 1846 CE]

Before I had travelled to the northwestern corner of the contiguous American States or learned much about its geography, I asked a native of those regions why there was not a substantial city at the mouth of the Columbia River.  She puzzled for a moment, and replied “I don’t know.  There’s always Astoria, but that really doesn’t count.”  It was years before I understood her comment.

It all started because Napoleon Bonaparte needed money even more acutely than normal in 1802 CE.  He operated under no illusions regarding the continued hostility of the European countries with which he had peace treaties. Additionally, he had lost control of the incredibly profitable sugar island of Saint Domingue, now Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where slave revolts kept breaking out and yellow fever killed more than half the troops he sent to reestablish French authority.  Thomas Jefferson endorsed Bonaparte’s efforts to crush the rebellion in Haiti, but Jefferson’s diplomatic support and embargo did not add a sou to the French treasury.

Eventually nearly 90,000 Frenchmen died in Hispaniola before Napoleon cut his losses and agreed to recognize the independence of Haiti in return for reparations.  The whole experience soured Napoleon on adventures in the Americas.

The reparation payments to France, often late, crippled the Haitian government financially until the debt, reduced through negotiation, was finally paid off in 1947.

But Napoleon had bullied Spain into transferring to France the rights to Louisiana, then defined as the lands of the Mississippi basin bordered on the west by Mexico and the Rocky Mountains, and stretching on the north into what is now southern Alberta and Saskatchewan.  So when Robert Livingston, later joined by James Monroe, both representing of Thomas Jefferson, arrived in France with an offer to buy New Orleans, needed as a port for Midwestern American goods, Napoleon instructed his Treasury Minister François de Barbé-Marbois to offer to sell the whole of the Louisiana Territory to the United States at the bargain price of $15 million, or approximately 4 cents per acre.  Talleyrand, Foreign Minister at the time, as usual more intelligent and farsighted than the men under whom he served, protested in vain.  Despite their lack of authority and financing to do so, Monroe, Livingston, and Jefferson agreed to the purchase.

This left what is currently the Northwest of the United States and Far West of Canada, roughly the size of Western Europe, up for grabs.   The Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804 – 1806 demonstrated among other things that the lands could be obtained by squatters’ rights.  For the United States, this meant getting substantive numbers of settlers in place before England and Canada, Spain, or Russia did.

But the government of the United States at this time had neither the funds nor the will to sponsor development of the Pacific Northwest.  In 1808 John Jacob Astor proposed to Jefferson a possible solution.  His ships would carry European and American trade goods around Cape Horn to a city established in the Northwest, where they would deliver trade items to agents of Astor who would carry on a fur business with the aborigines.  Sea otter pelts were especially valuable in China, with markups measured by orders of magnitude.

Loaded with furs from Astor’s agents and the Russians scattered on the Alaskan coast, the ships would proceed to Canton, where they would sell their cargo for a tremendous profit, and take on loads of tea, silk, porcelain, and other fashionable Chinese luxury goods which they would deliver to London and New York for another round of impressive profits.

All this would take place with the endorsement of the Government of the United States. Astor had the resources and experience to make the project successful if anybody did. For Jefferson, the plan would establish the United States’ hold on the Pacific Northwest.  For Astor, it would funnel much of the most lucrative trade of three continents through his hands.  For both parties, it seemed a win-win proposition.

Astor began to attend to the practical details of the project.  In 1809 he sent a ship, the Enterprise, to the Pacific Northwest to verify the trade prospects there.

In 1810 he sent another ship, the Tonquin, around Cape Horn and an Overland Party up the Missouri River, over the Rockies, and down the Columbia River to rendezvous with the Tonquin at the mouth of the Columbia.  Astor recruited experienced Canadian voyageurs and traders, a number of them Scottish, using his contacts with the Northwest Company in Montreal. He offered key personnel shares in the enterprise.

Astor selected a captain for the Tonquin with similar care, choosing a U.S. naval hero, Jonathan Thorn. His bravery, patriotism, and strict adherence to orders were enough to cause Astor to overlook that fact that Thorn had never commanded a civilian ship. The crew of the Tonquin did not respond well to Thorn’s attempts to institute a military style of discipline, and the Scottish traders seemed to enjoy mocking him.

Reaching the mouth of the Columbia River overland proved extremely difficult, as the Snake River Canyon was impassible by boats or by foot.  Hostile natives, brutal weather, and hunger took a fearsome toll before Astoria was properly founded and trading could begin.

Reaching the Columbia River’s mouth by sea was made notoriously difficult by a 4 mile [6.4 km] long sandbar, standing waves up to 4 feet [1.2 m] high that resulted from Pacific currents running into the Columbia’s massive flow, and occasional swells of up to 30 feet [9 m] from storms far out to sea.

Thorn, whose relationship with the crew and traders was venomous at best, lost a whaleboat and five men he had sent to explore the bar, and abandoned a pinnace and its crew at sea after they had found a channel for the Tonquin to pass through.  Later, while exploring the coastline and trading, Thorn was killed, along with most of his shipmates, by Clayoquot raiding parties.  One shipboard survivor blew the vessel’s 9,000 pound [4,100 kg] powder magazine, killing about 200 Clayoquot warriors as well as himself.

Another ship sent to bring supplies and trade goods to the colony at Astoria in 1813 was swamped during a storm off Hawaii, and could not complete the journey.  A third got delayed in Russian Alaska and Hawaii.  A fourth ship sent by Astor made it as far as Hawaii, where its crew apparently mutinied.

In 1813 Duncan McDougall, one of Astor’s Scots, sold the American settlement and its thousands of furs to the Canadian North West Company for about 30 cents on the dollar. The North West Company was represented by another Scot, John George McTavish, who concluded the deal shortly before the British Navy arrived hoping to seize the settlement and its pelts as booty in the War of 1812.  The North West Company had advised McDougall of the impending arrival and intentions of the Royal Navy.  Some Americans left Astoria. Most of the expedition’s trappers along the Snake River were killed by aboriginal warriors.

Between 61 and 65 of Astor’s pioneers perished during the initial attempt to found the city as an outpost of the United States, out of a total of roughly 140 men who set out: a death rate of about 45%.

Astor defended his plan and blamed his subordinate leaders.  Astor went on to dominate the Rocky Mountain fur trade in the 1820s and 1830s, and hire Washington Irving to write his version of the history of the failed colony.

But the real impact of Astor’s efforts was not evident at the time.  The Return Overland Party, while making its catastrophic way back from the Columbia River to the Missouri in 1812, had stumbled upon the South Pass through the Rocky Mountains, located in what is now southwestern Wyoming.  This was the final link in a practical land route to the Pacific Northwest.  The South Pass could be managed by a loaded wagon of the era.  The Oregon Trail had been found, though it was not to be heavily used for thirty years.

In 1818 the northwest corner of North America south of Alaska was made subject to “joint occupation” by Great Britain and the United States.  The trickle of American settlers travelling the Oregon Trail in the 1830s became a stream in the 1840s.  The British Canadian fur trading posts were demographically overwhelmed by American settlers heading for the Willamette Valley.  Despite hysterical American politicians’ adoption of the slogan of “54˚40’ or fight,” Britain and the U.S. agreed on a northern boundary of 49 degrees to separate the American Oregon Territory from Canada in 1846.

Astor lived to see this establishment of America’s domain, dying in 1848 the richest man in the country with a fortune of approximately $20 million [roughly $110 billion in today’s dollars].    One of his descendants moved to England, eventually becoming titled, with a son who married a divorcée from Virginia who became the first woman elected to Parliament.  The American line, which included John Jacob Astor IV, who went down with the Titanic in 1912, ended in 2007 with the death of Brooke Astor, aged 105.

The city of Astoria is now the seat of Clatsop County, Oregon. Its population is slightly less than 9,500.  It is the third clammiest city in the United States, after Lake Charles Louisiana and Port Arthur Texas, with an average morning relative humidity of 89%.

Further Reading:

  • Washington Irving’s Astoria, or, Anecdotes of an Enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains is a solid piece of partisan journalism that defined the popularly accepted view of Astor’s ventures in the Pacific Northwest for generations.
  • Peter Stark’s Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire provides a broader perspective with more details.
  • Originally published in 1849, Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail describes his experiences travelling the famed route. His observations of those he met are as interesting as his efforts to acquaint himself with the aboriginal tribes through whose lands the trail ran. It is possible to see the young historian training himself for his masterpiece, the multi-volume narrative France and England in North America, while on the journey.

The Baltic Crusades [11th Century CE – 16th Century CE]  

The Northern Crusades in the Baltic area are less well known in English speaking countries than they should be.  After all, unlike Medieval Europe’s crusades in the Middle East, the Baltic Crusades added to the territory of Christendom on a long term basis.  Furthermore, like the Crusades in the Middle East, the Baltic Crusades generated conditions that have exacerbated hostilities in the area and beyond to this day.

Some of the difficulties arose from geographically non-contiguous entities like German East Prussia, so convenient an excuse for German aggression in the build up to World War II, and the contemporary Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, formerly Königsberg, which poses long-term problems for Poland, Lithuania, and allied countries.  The Baltic Crusades and Danzig Corridor are not merely of antiquarian interest.

The Northern Crusades took place between the 11th and 16th centuries CE primarily in the lands of Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Prussia, and Lithuania,  though some targeted Orthodox communities of Russians, especially Novgorod and Pskov.

The main aggressors were Germans, with campaigns by Danish, Swedish, Polish, English, and French forces as well.  Before he usurped the English throne, Henry Bolingbroke [Henry IV] honed his combat skills in two attacks on Vilnius directed by the Teutonic Knights [1390, 1392].

Dealing with the history of the Baltic wars is made complex by efforts of West European countries to justify campaigns of naked aggression against pagans and Orthodox Christians alike as Crusades.

The Germanic Teutonic Knights portrayed their efforts in Baltic areas as selfless altruistic campaigns to defend and expand Christendom.  To take such protestations at face value in regards to their efforts in the 13th century would be naïve.  To do so for their actions after Lithuania converted to Catholicism in 1386 stretches credulity beyond reason; to do so after their crushing defeat at Tannenberg [Grunwald] in 1410 is risible.

The Swedes recast many of their expansionist efforts against Christian Russians as crusades, with or without Papal blessings, in fits of Romanticized pseudo-history writing during the 19th century.

Originally the Baltic Crusades were justified as necessary to protect Christian missionaries and prevent morally repugnant pagan practices such as persecution of Christian converts by shamans, infanticide, polygamy, worship of idols, and human sacrifice.    By 1300 these goals had been achieved in the Baltic lands.  The attacks continued.

Protection of missionaries remained a staple public justification of European military aggression for centuries afterwards, in geographies as diverse as the Americas, Africa, and China.  French and Germans alike claimed their late imperialism in China was a response to the persecution of missionaries [1899 -1901].

Medieval Christian merchants in the Baltic areas also wanted crusaders to provide protection against local pirates and access to markets on the Baltic coast and major rivers of the region.

Military leaders found that designating their invasions of and reprisals in Baltic lands as Crusades was generally helpful in their recruitment drives and formation of alliances as they expanded their territories at the expense of native tribes and kingdoms.

If the Pope blessed your invasion and the war went your way, you could benefit monetarily from instituting or restructuring the Church in conquered territories.

The non-pecuniary results could also be dramatic, as the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 demonstrated. Pope Alexander II gave approval to William’s invasion, which enabled the Normans to replace English churchmen with Norman clergy. One unintended result was the near disappearance of Old English as a written language.  The spoken language evolved quickly without the restraint of literacy, morphing from something close to Old German into the promiscuous tongue to which Chaucer and Shakespeare gave voice.

Similar to the way that proximity to Roman military culture fostered the development of Gothic confederations in the 4th and 5th centuries CE, the Baltic Crusaders prompted formation of the first Lithuanian kingdom in 1251.

In 1253 the King of Lithuania, Mindaugus, and his wife were baptized as Christians.  If Mindaugus thought this would halt the Crusader’s attacks, he was soon disabused of the notion.  Lithuania officially became a Christian nation in 1386, when its Grand Duke Jogaila married 11 year old Queen Jadwiga of Poland.

The Teutonic Knights kept attacking until they were decisively defeated at the Battle of Tannenberg [Grunwald] in 1410.  More destructive to the ethnically and religiously diverse state of Lithuania in the long run was Jogaila’s choice of the Catholic brand of Christianity, which alienated many of his Orthodox subjects.

Previously the collapse of Kievan Rus as a result of Mongolian and Polish assaults led many Russians to turn to Lithuania for protection. By the middle of the 14th century, Lithuania had become the largest state in Europe, briefly reaching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Despite its union with Poland in 1569, creating a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that lasted more than two centuries, neighboring countries dismantled the Lithuanian state piece by piece.  This process, which was complete by 1795, saw Russia annexing most of Lithuania’s territory.

Luther and the Reformation led to the end of the Teutonic Knights’ power.  In 1525 Grand Master Albert von Brandenburg declared himself a Protestant, dissolved the Order, and made its lands a Polish duchy.

The Livonian Knights, an offshoot organization, survived only to be attacked by Russia, prompting Denmark and Sweden to join in the fighting.  After a decisive defeat by Moscow at the Battle of Ergeme in 1560, in 1561 the Livonian Master declared his Lutheranism, and converted land held by the Order in Semigallia and Courland into a hereditary duchy for his family.  Most of the remaining land was taken by Lithuania, with Denmark and Sweden grabbing portions of northern Estonia.

The end of the Northern Crusades did not bring peace to the Baltic region.


Further Reading:

  • Eric Christiansen’s The Northern Crusades details the Medieval attempts at military Christianization and domination of the Latvians, Lithuanians, Finns, Estonians, Prussians, and other inhabitants of the Baltic region. It is the only English language narrative currently in print to provide a comprehensive overview. On the positive side the narrative is clear and generally judicious; on the negative side, the lack of properly scaled detailed maps is a frequent irritation.
  • William Urban has a number of books that emphasize the German efforts, including The Baltic Crusade and The Teutonic Knights: A Military History, as well as monographs on the Samogitian, Livonian, and Prussian crusades. His Dithmarschen, A Medieval Peasant Republic is a useful reminder that resistance to feudal tyranny was more widespread and effective than is sometimes thought.
  • C. Rowell’s Lithuania Ascending: A Pagan Empire within East-Central Europe, 1295 – 1345 provides a much needed and all too seldom presented pagan perspective.
  • Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film Alexander Nevsky is a non-historical propaganda thriller that presents a Russian victory over fancifully imagined Teutonic knights. It bears a slight resemblance to a 13th century invasion of Novgorod and a Slavic victory fought on the frozen surface of Lake Peipus.

 Food Poisoning:  Then and Now  [18th Century CE to the Present]

A recently savored loaf of onion rye bread brought to mind Mary Kilbourne Matossian’s Poisons of the Past:  Molds, Epidemics, and History, which argued that food poisoning, especially from ergot growth on damp rye, influenced mass outbreaks of delusion, violence, and religious mania more than was previously generally thought.

Even the Great Awakening that convulsed Colonial American religious and social practices from the 1730s to the 1750s may well have owed something of its fervor to the effects of the compounds associated with grain molds.

Some American historians tried to dismiss Matossian’s argument out of hand without considering the evidence:  they had roughly the same credibility as those who denied Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings because of their belief that Jefferson was more interested in books and architecture than women, even after DNA analysis made their position untenable.

Certainly humanity has shown itself prone to ingest dangerous substances, willingly or unknowingly, ranging from soma quaffing Indo-Europeans, through Romans who systemically poisoned themselves with lead pipes and tableware, and not stopping with the Celts whom Posidonius describes drinking undiluted the wine Greeks added to their water as a disinfectant.

Ergot produces a wide range of mind altering chemicals, some related to LSD.  Its psychotropic properties were well known to medical and recreational users by at least the 19th century, as chronicles of the 1881 – 1884 Greely expedition to Greenland make clear:  the medical officer whiled away idle snowbound hours with the aid of a carefully husbanded supply of ergot, though its relationship to his probable complicity in acts of cannibalism was never conclusively demonstrated.  The carefully excised lumps of flesh removed beneath neat flaps of the corpses’ skin, however, suggest an uncommon surgical skill.

Some British reviewers attacked Matossian’s book with a peculiar virulence.  One critic savaged her for a supposed lack of notes and bibliographical references, evidently not noticing the 25 pages of citations before the index in addition to the sources cited with each table in the text.  It was not the proudest moment in the history of English scholarship.

The introduction of the potato as a basic starch for the poor in Europe and progressive displacement of rye bread by wheat bread seems to have broken the cycle of periods of mass hysteria and jacqueries following periods of unusually damp weather conducive to ergot growth detailed in Matossian’s book.

But I have little doubt future historians will look at the levels of sugar, salt, and fat in the mass produced and highly processed food of our days, and our epidemics of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiac disease, and wonder at our ability to blithely poison ourselves.


Further reading: 

  • Matossian discusses the effects of eating spoiled food in Poisons of the Past.
  • A brief discussion of ergot with reference to the Greely expedition can be found in Pierre Berton’s The Arctic Grail.