The Rise of Western Christendom

Triumph and Diversity, AD 200 – 1000

Within a millennium since the death – and resurrection – of Jesus of Nazareth, the religion that came to be known as Christianity has grown from being a fringe community within the Middle East, into the most dominant religious, political, and social force all over Europe. Since becoming the most favored religion in the empire during Constantine’s reign in the third century, Christianity has – with few interruptions – grown rapidly, taking over both the aristocratic circles and the grassroots of Roman society.

The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, AD 200 – 1000, by Peter Brown, provides a general survey of Christianity from the third century until the dawn of the new millennium. It’s a story of triumph, as the religion spread throughout the empire, and displaced paganism by the turn of the millennium. And it’s a story of diversity, as so-called ‘micro-Christendoms’ sprang out, with bishops leading each community, excercising both religious and political powers.

By 400, Christians are everywhere within the empire, from Spain in the west up to Persia in the east. However, as the religion’s adherents are spread throughout such a vast territory, with the bishops as the primary leaders of each community, differences are bound to appear. Debates on biblical interpretations and theology have caused rifts among groups of bishops, especially within a west-east divide.

Constantine’s first Council of Nicaea has settled debate on Arianism, but the divisions that the theological conflict has created remained long after. The barbarians who later took over the Western empire were themselves adherents of the much denounced Arianism. And as Christianity further spread to the northern parts of Europe, it became clear that such differences are bound to deepen, unless authority is centralized – to Rome.

One of the biggest such conflicts centuries after the first Nicaea is the Byzantine Iconoclasm. Eastern emperors such as Leo III and Constantine V denounced the use of icons to represent Jesus, Mary, and the saints. The dissenters – known as iconoclasts – pointed out its violation of the First Commandment (still a major objection to Catholicism in the present day). A volcanic eruption and the near-conquest of Constantinople by Muslim forces were seen by iconoclasts as God’s punishment for the use of icons. Leo III prohibited icons, and Constantine V called a council of bishops in Hiereia to condemn the practice.

However, Constantine’s daughter-in-law, Empress Eirene, supported the veneration of icons, and thus called for a more ecumenical council in Nicaea – the second Nicene council – that definitively upheld the iconophile practice. The council also proscribed the earlier council in Hiereia. These kinds of ecumenical councils serve as significant forces in settling debates among independent-minded bishops, and will remain to be so centuries to come.

Meanwhile, monasticism became a central aspect of Christianity. Monasteries became centres of learning, and communities around them considered monasteries as holy places, where the prayers of monks and nuns are the ordinary Christians’ bridge to heaven. The cult of saints grew, and relics and saints’ tombs became important physical manifestations of faith.

Islam’s rise and spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa threatened to check the rapid growth of Christianity. The Umayyad conquest of Iberian peninsula also caused consternation for Rome. Despite this, for centuries Christianity and Islam maintained a mostly peaceful co-existence within the known world. And as the south and east of Rome-controlled Europe remained outside the Pope’s sphere of influence, they looked into the northern regions of Europe for expansion.

The book The Rise of Western Christendom shows how Christianity spread and grew throughout Europe and the East. By 1000, paganism was suppresses within the Christian world, and remained in the outlying regions east of Germania and in most of Scandinavia. This so-called triumph and diversity, as the author asserts, destroys the image of early medieval Christianity as one of “Dark Ages”, which then ushered in a sort of Renaissance. Instead, Christianity within this period was characterized by vibrancy and vitality, as the foundations of what we now see as modern Christianity were laid during these times. After all, a religion that managed to grow this much couldn’t have done so during its ‘darkest’ period.

The Rise of Western Christendom is an excellent book for learning about late antiquity in general, and early medieval Christianity in specific. Peter Brown’s older book, The World of Late Antiquity, is a shorter and more general survey of the period, and also made him the preeminent scholar for Late Antiquity – in fact it was Brown himself who coined the term! I have read both, but I liked The Rise of Western Christendom more, as it’s more comprehensive and more relevant to my preferences: I’m starting to learn about history of Christianity, and I read this book as preparation for going into medieval Christianity. That said, I do suggest reading both, if the reader is interested in learning more about Late Antiquity.


The First World War as Political Tragedy

The First World War is most remembered for being a war of attrition, a stalemate conflict fought along hundreds of miles of trenches. It was the pioneer of aerial battles and reconnaissance, tanks, and chemical warfare. Yet while this is how the Great War is commonly viewed, much of how and why it became the attrition war that it was is best explained not through the lens of military history, but through its political conduct.

David Stevenson’s book, Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy, examines the Great War as fought at the top, by the belligerent governments and political leaders. Even as the war settled into a stalemate, behind the scenes the leaders actually ramped up their war efforts, further widening the war by pulling in other nations into the conflict, while constantly developing new war technologies in hopes of breaking the deadlock. The political leaderships of the main belligerents – Britain, France, and Germany – also maintained surprising unity among their countries, as their respective political parties set their differences aside and continued to support the war regardless of its human and economic costs.

The 1917 revolutions in Russia, and America’s entrance to the war that same year, gave Germany an opportunity to conduct a war of movement, and in 1918 unleashed their final salvo, in desperate attempt to win the conflict before the Americans can tip the balance to the Allies’ favor. Unfortunately for the Central Powers, the offensives failed, as exhaustion finally set in among the servicemen. Once the Allies regained the offensive, desertion among the Germans and Austro-Hungarian troops broke the ranks, and their retreat rapidly continued until the final days of the war.

When leaders of the German High Seas Fleet attempted to put up one final act of resistance against the incoming Allied forces, the sailors refused to participate, and the ensuing riots among the ranks spread quickly across the empire. Meanwhile, Austria-Hungary’s many nationalities have also began revolting, with independence as primary reason for taking up arms against the Dual Monarchy system. While the German leadership under Ludendorff initially tried to negotiate lighter terms while acquiescing to President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the widespread revolutions, combined with fears of possible Communist takeover, forced them to accept unconditionally whatever terms were presented to them, no matter how harsh.

But no matter how climactic the war was, the Second World War was not, as the author argues, caused directly by those supposedly harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty. Rather, disunity among the Allies, the post-war economic hardships, and the growth of paramilitary organizations were the greater seeds with which leaders like Hitler and Mussolini rose. And while the Versailles Treaty indeed imposed the “war guilt” unto Germany, the Allies nonetheless had greater leeway in implementing the terms, and had they cooperated well, they could’ve ensured that Germany didn’t suffer as much while also being able to comply with the terms.

A highly difficult but insightful book, Cataclysm requires sufficient knowledge of the First World War and its aftermath, as the author dissects the political and strategic aspects of the conflict. This is a lot different from the usual focus on military conduct in most overview books, and Stevenson’s rather dry style may take a while to get used to. Another book of his, 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, which was published many years later, explains in-depth a large part of Cataclysm’s main section, and having read 1917 earlier this year, it helped me get through the author’s writing style while also providing essential knowledge for further understanding – and appreciating – this book.

As long as the reader is aware of these considerations, and can confidently wade through the density of this book, Cataclysm is an illuminating read on the political conduct of the war. It also provides for arguments about the war’s history that are not usually tackled in other books related to the First World War. For the more serious readers of the First World War, this is a highly worthy book to engage in.


War, Peace, and Revolution

The book 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson, examines how the leaders of the belligerent countries desperately looked for ways out of a seemingly endless war of attrition. From failed offensives, to peace overtures, to war declarations, and even revolutions, the book goes through the climactic 1917 in detail, offering perspectives on how the leaders struggled with the decisions they had to make to seek an end to the endless slaughter that is the Great War.

A desperate Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, despite the risk of drawing in the United States. The US, in turn, entered the war after the discovery of the Zimmerman telegram. The British adopted convoys to reduce shipping losses, despite arguing about its effectiveness for the first few months of 1917. The French mounted an offensive; it failed, and contributed to morale deterioration and a mutiny.

Meanwhile, Russia had it even worse. The centuries-old tsarist monarchy was overthrown, and socialist revolutionaries took over. They weren’t exactly anti-war, however, and participated in yet another failed offensive. In its aftermath, even greater social unrest followed, and the revolutionary Lenin maneuvered himself and his Bolshevik faction to power in the famous October Revolution. Once in power, he worked to finally end Russian participation in the war, culminating in the Brest-Litovsk treaty the following year.

But the book doesn’t confine itself to the major participants, and also discussed developments outside Europe. Greece entered the war on the Allies’ side; Italy suffered catastrophic defeat at Caporetto, but emerged stronger and more united than ever; Brazil entered the war against Germany, though its efforts are limited in territory; Siam and Japan entered with the intention of having themselves represented in a post-war conference, in order to leverage against unequal treaties forced upon them by the West.

There were also peace initiatives, which, however, failed due to various reasons. It is also worth noting that, even at this point in the war, the belligerents still haven’t fully decided the extent of their war aims. This contributed to the collapse of peace talks, as the participants couldn’t agree on exactly what they want for themselves, and what they want (and don’t want) the opposing sides to get.

The question of what will happen to the Ottoman territories is also discussed in the book. Designs for the Middle East after the expected collapse of the Ottoman Empire figured in discussions among the Allies, specifically France and Britain. The issue of a Jewish “national home” in Palestine is also raised – the book narrates how the Balfour Declaration was shaped, paving the way for a more concrete design for Palestine, which in any case won’t be realized until after the Second World War.

The year 1917, as the author argues, is the major turning point of the war. A lot of things could’ve turned out differently, but how and why they turned out as they actually did is a major theme in 1917. And the events and decisions that happened and were taken in the year 1917 ultimately shaped the course of the war in 1918.

The Marne, 1914

The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World

The Great War, during its first few weeks, was a war of movement. As armies were mobilized, and war plans were implemented, the opposing sides waged a war which they believed would be over pretty soon. They were, of course, to be proved wrong. Nonetheless, they didn’t know then that the War will be a long conflict of attrition. And it was in these fateful days of August and September 1914 that the course of the War would be set.

Despite its title, The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World, by Holger Herwig, isn’t strictly just about the titular battle. In fact, much of it is about the so-called Battle of the Frontiers, when the German forces put into motion the now well-known Schlieffen Plan, wheeling through the Belgian plains as millions of men marched towards the expected invasion of France.

Both the Schlieffen Plan, and France’s less cohesive Plan XVII, are discussed and examined at the beginning. The Schlieffen Plan is an offensive plan meant to quickly and decisively defeat France, a method for avoiding a more gruesome two-front war against both France and Russia. Meanwhile, the Plan XVII is a defensive plan hinged on an assumption that the main German force would be concentrated in the Ardennes. Additionally, Plan XVII is meant to provide a method for retaking the Alsace-Lorraine region occupied by the Germans since the French defeat in 1871.

The following narrative of the opening weeks of the Great War then serves as a study and examination of how these two plans were implemented, how successful (or unsuccessful) they were, and whether the opening battles effected the bloody trench warfare that followed, and ultimately defined the Great War.

Moreover, the decisions taken by the respective commanders of the German and French forces – Moltke and Joffre – are checked against both the plans they were supposed to proceed with, and the realities on the battlefields. A sharp contrast between the two leaders’ conduct of the war will emerge throughout the book, making it clear why the Germans failed to win decisively, and why the French were able to prevent defeat, but fail to make a breakthrough.

The Marne, 1914 is an excellent book on the opening battles of the Great War, and indeed it’s the most recommended book for the subject. The focus on military operations can be daunting and dry, especially with all the details presented. Nonetheless, it is a readable and illuminating work on the Battles of the Frontiers and the Marne, and how pre-war plans are bound to be broken once the armies are mobilized and the actual war begins.

Presidents of War

The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times

The United States has a long history of waging wars for various reasons and purposes. Presidents of War: The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times, by Michael Beschloss, examines eight US presidents and the wars they presided – focusing almost solely on the chief executives, and the decisions they and their allies (and opponents) made. The more specific details of the wars are not discussed as the book.

The book goes through eight leaders – Madison, Polk, Lincoln, T. Roosevelt, Wilson, FDR, Truman, and Johnson – and how each president formed (unintentionally or otherwise) precedents for the future leaders who will also wage their own wars. More than this, the book also places judgment on each leader’s methods: how they convinced Congress to declare wars (note that Truman and Johnson did not have war declarations from Congress), how they publicly defended their wars, and how much they sought to bend the laws to achieve their goals.

The way modern presidents justified their wars derived from their predecessors. For one thing the book highlights is the relations between the executive and the legislative branches, of how each president was beset with troubles on convincing their Congresses to back their wars – by hook or by crook. Lies and deception were employed to convince the legislators of the “need” to declare a state of war, and mobilize the people to fight for America.

The resulting verdict for each chief executive may or may not be agreeable to readers. And, at least for me, it was not very straightforward in all cases – the author’s judgments are presented at the end of each president’s two-chapter narratives, yet when going back to the narratives themselves it’s not clear how the author arrived at his conclusions.

Nonetheless, Presidents of War succeeds in illuminating the decisions each president had to make, before, during, and after the conflicts they fought. It’s almost never dignified and just – sending people to their deaths, in order to kill other people, hardly qualifies as such – but the wars discussed here are integral to understanding America and its inner workings. To dismiss such wars simply on the basis of them being on the “wrong” side of the good-and-evil duality risks viewing US history and foreign policy in an overly simplistic manner. And the best way to address the dilemmas of waging wars is to understand how and why the presidents of the past fought theirs.