Multinational corporate accountability and control during the Nazi period

In a previous post I considered the question of the culpability of multinational corporations with affiliates in wartime Nazi Germany (link). There I discussed a number of books that address this question, including Billstein, Fings, Kugler, and Levis’ very important 2000 contribution, Working for the Enemy: Ford, General Motors, and Forced Labor in Germany during the Second World War. This book provides a detailed business history during the Nazi period of the activities of General Motors (through its subsidiary Opel) and Ford Motor Company (through its German subsidiary Ford Werke in Cologne), including especially the use of forced labor by both companies. Here I want to focus on a crucial question of corporate responsibility: to what extent were these practices under the knowledge and control of the US-based corporate executives? 

Begin with General Motors. Adam Opel AG was General Motors’ subsidiary in Germany, and was the largest producer of automobiles and trucks for the Reich. GM acquired Opel during the Great Depression and took full ownership and control in 1931. Ample evidence is provided in Billstein et al concerning Opel’s use of forced labor during the war years. However, there is disagreement over the degree of management control exercised by General Motors in the US over its Opel subsidiary in Germany. 

Bradford Snell’s testimony to Congress in 1974 addressed this question (link, pp. 16-23). The Snell report to Congress maintained that US senior executives continued to exercise virtually full control over Opel’s operations for the first 11 months of declared war between Germany and the US. However, GM and other researchers have rebutted this claim vigorously. GM claimed that the “enemy property custodian” appointed by the German authorities had sole authority over the management and operations of Opel. Billstein et al take a nuanced view of the question in Working for the Enemy. They take issue with Snell’s assessment that GM exercised “complete management control” at Opel (35), but they argue that Opel executives and managers continued the general strategies preferred by GM before the war. And they argue that US executives of GM during the pre-war years were eager to gain contracts for vehicles and other materials that were crucial for the Nazi government’s military buildup. “In fact, the evidence suggests General Motors’s willing collaboration in the conversion [to armaments production]” (36).

Billstein et al raise a crucial and foundational question: could GM have vetoed the conversion of Opel’s manufacturing capacity to wartime production in the 1930s and the use of forced labor in the 1940s if they had wished to do so? Henry Ashby Turner, Jr.’s General Motors and the Nazis: The Struggle for Control of Opel, Europe’s Biggest Carmaker sheds more light on the business activities and decision-making of General Motors during the Nazi regime. Turner has special expertise on this question, since he directed the documentation project during 1999-2000 sponsored by General Motors to review its private corporate archives during the Nazi period. Turner has special authority in his judgments about GM’s wartime behavior because of his direct involvement in the 1999-2000 review of General Motors’ internal documents and records during the relevant time period. Further, Turner is an acknowledged expert on the corporation’s behavior during the period. (The complete archive of all documents recovered and reviewed has been deposited in digital form at Yale University’ Sterling Memorial Library, designated as the General Motors-Opel Collection.) Based on systematic review of massive quantities of internal GM documents in 1999-2000, Turner concludes that GM’s management control over Opel was extremely limited after 1941. 

The question of management control of Opel’s operations is a crucial one. To what extent did GM’s headquarters in the US direct operations and strategies at Opel? Turner addresses this question directly. Legally GM had complete authority over Opel prior to 1941, as the sole owner of its shares; so GM had the ability to remove members of the board and the director, and to accept or reject the annual report. In practice, however, its ability to control was attenuated by distance and language. And its investment in Opel was entirely hostage to the Nazi regime: profits could not be repatriated, the enterprise could not be sold to a German buyer at a “fair market value”, and the Nazi regime had the political and legal ability to compel compliance with its policies — including “Aryanization”.

The American executives assigned to Opel exercised wide-ranging discretionary authority. Under Sloan’s leadership, GM operated on a managerial principle of “co-ordinated decentralization” that reserved control over allocations of capital to the central leadership but otherwise left most decisions to the corporation’s various divisions, which were monitored by a hierarchical system of committees. The Americans at Opel were, however, from the outset heavily dependent upon the German members of the managerial staff, who far outnumbered them. Of necessity, they had to rely upon these colleagues for information about what was happening at the firm and elsewhere in the country as well as for communications with employees and government officials. Returning to the United States frequently for vacations and for consultations at GM’s New York headquarters at a time when trans-Atlantic sea travel required a week or more each way, the American executives were absent for substantial periods of time. As a result, those charged with responsibility for Opel exercised at best a tenuous control over the firm. (6)

The archives reviewed in 1999-2000 establish clearly that while under ownership and legal control by General Motors (between 1940 and the end of the war), Opel made extensive use of forced labor. However, Turner’s considered view is that General Motors had little actual management control over Opel’s decision-making after the declaration of war between Germany and the United States in 1941. The American strategy from the United States was to “camouflage” the US ownership of Opel and to maintain the value of their investment of Opel pending the end of the war. And in fact Alfred P. Sloan expressed an explicitly non-interventionist philosophy of business management in a letter to a shareholder quoted in the book: “an international business operating throughout the world, should conduct its operations in strict business terms, without regard to the political beliefs of its management, or the political beliefs of the countries in which it is operating” (Turner, 27).

By 1936, after three years of Nazi rule, Opel and the GM executives in charge of it had undergone a far-reaching adaptation to the Third Reich. Faced with a ruthless regime and a company workforce the Nazis had brought under their control, the Americans responsible for the firm had acquiesced in the politicization of factory life and intimidation of their employees. To cope with the xenophobia promoted by the regime, they had withdrawn into the background and sought to conceal the firm’s foreign ownership. (30)

What about Ford Motor Company and the corporate relationship between Dearborn and its subsidiary in Germany, Ford Werke Cologne? The view taken by Billstein et al of Ford’s corporate behavior during the Nazi period is quite negative. The primary source of evidence upon which they depend is a set of interviews conducted by the city of Cologne of individuals who had been forced workers at Ford Werke during the war years, and who had accepted an invitation to return to Cologne to help to document the realities of forced labor at the complex during this period. Excerpts of these interviews are included in the book, and they are very powerful. But they do not shed light on the organizational question: where does responsibility for the use of forced labor fall — in Cologne or in Dearborn?

The key finding of the Ford archive review (link) mentioned in the prior post is the conclusion, endorsed by Simon Reich, that Ford headquarters in Dearborn had essentially no knowledge or control of Ford Werke management decisions after the declaration of war in 1941 — including the use of forced labor. Further, the review finds that Ford Werke made minimal profits over the period of wartime manufacture. (Here is a summary statement by Simon Reich of the central findings of the archival research; link.) The Ford report confirms that Ford Werke Cologne made use of forced and slave labor during the wartime period, but the report is unequivocal in asserting that there is no documentation in the 98,000 pages of archive materials that suggests either knowledge, acquiescence, or control by Dearborn of this practice in Cologne, and Reich endorses this conclusion. The report takes the view that Ford Werke was functionally autonomous from its nominal owners in the US during the wartime years, and that its management in Cologne was eager to cultivate business and military relationships with the Nazi regime in order to maintain the business viability of the operation.

This discussion is a complex one. It is clear that Opel, Ford Werke, and all other heavy industries in Germany were fully involved in the Nazi war effort, and searched aggressively for opportunities to gain military contracts for trucks, tanks, aircraft, engines, and other technologies that were essential for Hitler’s ability to wage war against Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, Belgium, Ukraine, Lithuania, and the USSR. Further, it is clear that these companies conformed to Nazi policy concerning the use of forced labor, Aryanization, and slave labor. Moreover, from other case studies in the auto industry, it seems clear that refusing the use of concentration-camp labor was a feasible choice — witness that Opel largely avoided making use of KZ labor while Daimler-Benz was very willing to use that labor (Gregor 194). Rightly, officials of these German companies were investigated and interrogated after the war concerning their conduct towards workers during the war. (It would be very interesting to see a case study of a major business under Nazi jurisdiction where management nonetheless managed to avoid committing crimes against their own workers and other civilians. Were there industrial companies in Norway that managed to maintain decent labor practices under Nazi occupation?) 

This suggests that it is important to assess culpability for illegal and immoral actions taken by these companies when these actions are uncovered. If Opel or Ford Werke provided only starvation rations for its forced workers; if these companies used lethal force as a way of controlling their forced-labor contingents; if the companies provided unconscionably low levels of medical care for their unwilling workers; if these companies actively sought out the use of concentration-camp prisoners as slave labor; then the officers and executives who were responsible for these actions should be held responsible.

But what about the parent corporations? In the cases of Opel and Ford Werke, the balance of available documentation today seems to indicate (based on largely independent study of corporate archives) that it is most credible that the US headquarters had little knowledge and virtually no effective control over its subsidiaries in Germany after about 1940. If we find the independent reviews of GM and Ford archives largely credible — along with the assessments of these reviews by independent and respected historians Turner and Reich — then it would appear that the responsibility for corporate decisions made by Opel, Ford Werke, and Daimler-Benz falls chiefly on the German officers and decision-makers who conducted the affairs of those companies in the period from about 1940 until the end of the war, as well as the Nazi agencies and divisions that largely governed them. In particular, it would appear that responsibility for the use of forced labor in Russelsheim and Cologne cannot be assigned to New York and Dearborn headquarters for the parent companies. 

Does this mean that multinational corporations bear no responsibility for the actions of their subsidiaries? Certainly not. Rather, we might judge that World War II seems to represent a special case for multinational corporate responsibility. The circumstances of total war appear to have severed the arrangements of oversight and control that normally exist between parent and subsidiary. In more normal circumstances — Ford in Argentina, Coca Cola in India, Exxon in Nigeria — we should expect that the multinational corporation has an overriding duty to oversee and control the actions of its subsidiaries in other countries. Those duties extend to ensuring minimal labor standards, a non-violent relationship to labor unions, and a good-faith environmental stewardship of its operations. And if it fails in these duties, its officers should be held accountable. And the “non-interventionist” language put forward by Alfred P. Sloan cannot be accepted. Rather, the multinational corporation has a duty to be vigilant about the political and military choices being made by the governments of the countries in which it does business.

Three war-crimes trials took place after the end of World War Two involving German industrialists who were responsible for making use of forced labor by conquered civilians, use of slave labor from concentration camps, plundering and despoliation, membership in the Nazi party, and other crimes. These were among the “subsequent Nuremberg trials” conducted by US military authorities. These included trials of executives from IG Farben, Krupp, and Friedrich Flick. Here is an important finding from the dissent by Judge Paul Hebert in the Farben trial concerning the charge of the use of slave labor and the defense of “necessity” by Farben executives: “Willing cooperation with the slave labor utilization of the Third Reich was a matter of corporate policy that permeated the whole Farben organization… For this reason, criminal responsibility goes beyond the actual immediate participants at Auschwitz. It includes other Farben Vorstand plant-managers and embraces all who knowingly participated in the shaping of the corporate policy.” Jonathan Wiesen’s West German Industry and the Challenge of the Nazi Past, 1945-1955 is an important exploration of the moral responsibility of German industry and corporations for the crimes of the Nazi period.

Much of the evidence currently available to historians about corporate behavior by the auto companies and other major industries resulted from class-action lawsuits by survivors of the use of forced labor, including especially a suit led by the Ukrainian woman Elsa Iwanowa in 1998 and 1999. These lawsuits led to a sudden willingness on the part of General Motors and Ford Motor Company to make their corporate archives from the Nazi period available for study by researchers. Here is the 1999 judicial opinion issued by U.S. District Court for the district of New Jersey dismissing the Iwanowa class-action lawsuit by against Ford Motor Company and Ford Werke; link. Though the lawsuits were largely unsuccessful, they contributed to the establishment in Germany of a $1.7 billion fund, the German Companies Foundation Initiative: Remembrance, Responsibility, and Future, which was designed in part to provide financial compensation for individuals who had been forced to work in German factories, mines, and construction sites during World War II (Wiesen, kl 203). (The fund has now grown substantially.) The US District Court opinion is worth reading carefully, in that it provides a reasonably full background to the use of forced labor at Ford Werke; the conditions of labor in the Ford Werke factory; and the structure of international and German law with respect to the issue of forced labor.

Forced labor and multinational corporations

What role did American multinational auto companies play in the rearmament of Germany during the early period of Nazi rule? And to what extent did these companies participate in Nazi practices like forced (slave) labor and Aryanization for which they should have been held morally responsible?

An early discussion of the responsibility of American corporations for their conduct in Nazi Germany was provoked by Bradford Snell’s testimony to Congress in 1974 (link, pp. 16-23). Snell, a specialist Congressional staff member, argued that the auto companies played a crucial role in supplying the German state with the vehicles and equipment needed for its conduct of war in Europe:

In Germany, for example, General Motors and Ford became an integral part of the Nazi war efforts. GM’s plants in Germany built thousands of bomber and jet fighter propulsion systems for the Luftwaffe at the same time that its American plants produced aircraft engines for the U.S. Army Air Corps. (17)

Snell makes clear the economic and business cost of non-cooperation by the auto companies:

Refusal to aid in prewar preparations, of course, was unthinkable. It would have resulted in confiscation and irreparable economic harm to GM and Ford stockholders. In any event, due to their concentrated economic power in both economies, they were able to shape the conflict to their own private corporate advantage. Whether in fact their profit-maximization determinations were also in the best interests of international peace or, more specifically, in accord with the national security objectives of the United States at that time is entirely unclear. (17)

It was, of course, in the best interests of GM and Ford to cooperate in the Axis war effort. Although GM, for example, was in complete management control of its Russelsheim warplane factory for nearly a full year after Germany’s declaration of war against the United States on December 11, 1941, its refusal to build warplanes at a time of negligible demand for automobiles would have brought about the economic collapse of its Opel plant. (22)

Here is Snell’s summary conclusion: “In sum, they maximized profits by supplying both sides with the material needed to conduct the war” (16). Importantly, however, Snell does not provide detailed evidence or analysis of the degree to which the US-based corporate headquarters of these companies were in a position to exert management control over their German subsidiaries. And he does not address the question of internal management decision-making at these companies and their use of forced labor. In fact, significant data about forced labor in these plants only became available to researchers in the 1990s.

In 1974 there was only limited documentation of the decision-making and management structure of the auto companies in their German subsidiaries. However, a series of class-action lawsuits emerged in the 1990s that prompted the auto companies to open their private business archives to inspection, and several books have been written since 1998 that document the kinds of collaboration that occurred between multinational companies and the Nazi regime. Two in particular are of special interest here: Billstein, Fings, Kugler, and Levis, Working for the Enemy: Ford, General Motors, and Forced Labor in Germany during the Second World War (2000), and Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., General Motors and the Nazis: The Struggle for Control of Opel, Europe’s Biggest Carmaker (2005). Also important in this context is Neil Gregor’s book, Daimler-Benz in the Third Reich (1998), which provides a great deal of documentation of Daimler-Benz’s willing use of forced (slave) labor in its factories. 

These books are important for our concerns because they address the issue of how to understand the evils of the twentieth century, including mass killings, slave labor, and the destruction of human lives and dignity on a grotesque and massive scale. There is the question of evil state action to consider; the question of the evil deeds of particular individuals, from Rudolph Hoess to the ordinary policemen of Reserve Police Battalion 101 described by Christopher Browning (link), to the question of the public that accepted these horrendous actions. But along the way, there is the question of the actions and decisions of business firms that continued to operate in Germany, supplying the crucial war materials needed for blitzkrieg and operating according to Nazi principles. Those principles included official anti-Semitism and the use of forced labor of civilians and prisoners of war. There are many important questions that need to be addressed in this field, but the most important is the question of responsibility and culpability. To what extent were the US-based corporate executives aware of these practices, and to what extent did the company have effective control over their German subsidiaries?

The use of forced labor in auto and truck manufacturing plants

Labor shortages were a critical problem throughout wartime Germany, and at the Russelsheim Opel plant in particular. (Extensive documentation of Nazi use of forced and slave labor between 1933 and 1945 is provided by Ulrich Herbert, Hitler’s Foreign Workers: Enforced Foreign Labor in Germany under the Third Reich.) Billstein et al and Turner provide a good deal of detail about the practices of Opel with regard to forced labor. Skilled workers were drafted into the armed forces from the GM-owned Opel ranks in large numbers, and plant managers were unable to persuade the labor control authorities Arbeitsamt to exempt skilled workers from further conscription cohorts. Conscription then broadened to include unskilled workers. A possible solution was seen in enemy prisoners of war. The first Opel Russelsheim prison camp was built in July 1940 and was soon occupied by 600 French and Belgian prisoners (Billstein et al, 47). In October 1941 the state authorized the use of Soviet POWs as industrial workers under severe conditions of oversight and confinement, but few of the several million POWs taken during the Barbarossa operations survived to be deployed as industrial slave workers (Billstein et al, 54). In February 1942 the SS central agency approved the Ostarbeiterlasse permitting the conscription of Soviet civilians (and later other civilians from Eastern European conquest zones), and Opel Russelsheim was the first location to receive a consignment of forced workers from the East. A report from September 1942 lists 2449 forced laborers, including Russian civilians, French POWs, and other foreign civilians (Billstein et al, 56). Opel did not make use of concentration-camp labor, according to Billstein et al:

Opel was the only large German vehicle producer not to employ KZ camp prisoners in the period that followed, at either of its two production plants. The company’s tradition was conservative, and not at all anti-Semitic. Opel’s forced laborers, both prisoners of war and civilians, were guarded by company Werkschutz. Concentration camp prisoners were guarded by SS henchmen. (Billstein et al, 63)

What about Ford Motor Company and the extensive use of forced labor in Ford Werke Cologne? More insight into this question has emerged as a result of the same class-action lawsuits initiated in 1998 by former forced workers. In 2001 Ford Motor Company completed a very extensive review of its corporate archives as well as those of Ford Werke and German and US government sources (link), in a report supervised and validated by Simon Reich, a well known scholar of the period. The findings of this review are quite different from those offered by Billstein et al. The Ford Archive Report provides a fairly extensive set of facts about the use of forced and slave labor at Ford Werke Cologne. Here is an overview:

The use of foreign and forced labor at Ford-Werke began in 1940, and generally followed the same pattern as at other industrial facilities in Germany. Foreigners from Eastern and Western Europe, as well as Italian and French POWs were put to work at Ford-Werke. These men and women lived in barracks constructed by Ford-Werke adjacent to its plant site, in what became known in Cologne as the “Ford camp.”[308] After the Reichsbahn [the German railways], Ford-Werke was the next largest employer of forced workers in Cologne.[309] Late in the war, men from the concentration camp Buchenwald worked at Ford-Werke as slave laborers. (See Section 7.7.) (49)

Postwar reports indicate that the first civilians from Eastern Europe began working at Ford-Werke in the spring of 1942. An internal Ford-Werke memorandum written in June 1945 stated, “As far as we can remember, the first Russian men and women came to us in March 1942.”[319] Other postwar documents reported that the Eastern[320] workers arrived in April 1942.[321] In oral history interviews conducted during the 1990s, several Russian and Ukrainian former workers recalled arriving between April and June 1942.[322] Wartime financial records from Ford-Werke reported 320 Eastern workers in May 1942, with the numbers increasing each month to a maximum of 900 workers in October 1943. Between November 1943 and August 1944, the number of Eastern workers indicated in these records varied between 777 and 882.[323] (50)

Forced and foreign workers were a sizable percentage of the total workforce at Ford Werke. The Archive Report indicates that “the highest number of foreign and forced workers at any point during the war was approximately 2,000. This peak occurred in August 1944” (51). This is roughly 40% of the workforce. Here is a graph of the composition of the Ford-Werke labor force from 1941 to 1944 (52):

The report makes an attempt to assess pay rates and living conditions, and notes consistently that conditions and pay were substantially worse for eastern workers than western workers. Food rations for Russian and eastern European workers were especially poor:

Statements from denazification files report that Russians – children as well as adults – received poor food rations.[439] In an interview conducted in the 1990s, one former Eastern worker recalled that her rations typically consisted of three slices of bread and unsweetened coffee for breakfast, soup made from turnips and flour siftings for lunch, and bread and coffee again for dinner. (64)

This is clearly a starvation diet for an adult worker, amounting to perhaps 700-800 calories per day.

The report also provides clear documentation that Ford Werke made use of slave labor from the Buchenwald concentration camp:

On the same day that Schmidt and von Gusmann attended the Schaaf meeting [8/1/1944], the main Buchenwald concentration camp prepared a list of 50 prisoners to send to Ford-Werke.[467] Included in the group of prisoners deployed to Ford-Werke were Russian and Czech political prisoners, Poles, and two Germans, one of whom was described as a “criminal” and the other as “work shy.” Among them were carpenters, bricklayers, a painter, a tailor, a cabinet maker, plumbers, electricians, agricultural workers, shoemakers, a barber and a nurse.[468] Their first day of work was August 13, 1944.[469] … Buchenwald transfer lists show that at least 65 different men were assigned to the Ford-Werke satellite camp at one time or another, and that several were transported elsewhere or fled from Ford-Werke and new prisoners brought in to replace them.[470] Most documentation from the period indicates that there were 50 or fewer Buchenwald inmates at Ford-Werke at any given time from August 1944 through the end of February 1945.[471] A 1944 list of Buchenwald satellite camps designates “Ford-Köln” with a capacity of 50 prisoners. (68-69)

This is a long list of moral wrongs committed by Ford Werke — extensive use of forced labor, including POWs and civilians from occupied countries; some use of slave labor from the Buchenwald concentration camp; and a pervasive and dehumanizing differentiation across groups of workers concerning their treatment, housing, and food, with harsh and meager conditions for eastern workers and more moderate conditions for workers from France, Belgium, and other countries of western Europe. It would seem evident that the corporate directors of those companies in Germany bear significant moral and legal responsibility for these actions. In a later post I will turn to the question of the possible culpability of the parent companies, General Motors and Ford Motor Company. It will emerge there that careful review of company archives by independent researchers strongly suggests that the US-based corporate leaders had neither knowledge nor control over events in their German subsidiaries after 1940.

Compassion and the moral emotions (Nussbaum)

image: Philoctetes injured on Lemnos

How can the atrocities of the twentieth century lead to the creation of a better version of humanity? One theme to explore involves the moral emotion of compassion, and the idea that this is an emotion that human beings learn through experience and reflection. Crucially, we need to explore whether knowledge of history can help to inform the development of a culture of compassion. Both John Kekes and Susan Neiman provide some useful insights into the key question: how should a current generation engage with the history of the atrocities of the past century? Kekes contributes to this idea through his discussion of moral imagination, and Neiman contributes through her analysis of Rousseau’s theory of the malleability of human nature.

The philosopher who has shed the most light on compassion is Martha Nussbaum. In “Compassion: The Basic Social Emotion” (link) she explores the importance that compassion and pity play in the moral ordering of human social life. (The subject is treated as well in Part II of Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions.) As the title suggests, Nussbaum regards compassion (or pity) as a prerequisite moral emotion for much of social life; and she believes that it must be learned. Moreover, literature, drama, and history can be crucial components of that learning.

Tragedy, as ancient Athenian culture saw it, is not for the very young; and it is not just for the young. Mature people always need to expand their experience and to reinforce their grasp on central ethical truths. To the young adolescent who is preparing to take a place in the city, however, tragedy has a special significance. Such a spectator is learning pity in the process. (39)

If we believe that the ability to imagine the ills of another with vivid sympathy is an important part of being a good person, then we will want to follow Rousseau in giving support to procedures by which this ability is taught. Much of this will and should be done privately, in families. But every society employs and teaches ideals of the citizen, and of good civic judgment, in many ways; and there are some concrete practical strategies that will in fact support an education in compassion. (50)

Nussbaum approaches the topic of pity or compassion through the story of Philoctetes, as related by Sophocles. She finds that Sophocles provides a nuanced and reflective demonstration of the emotion, within the context of a complicated social story. The value of literature in exploring moral concepts has been a strength of Nussbaum’s approach to moral philosophy for a long time, and its use here is illuminating.

Nussbaum rejects the Humean view that emotions are the contrary of reason, knowledge, or deliberation; instead, she argues that at least some emotions, like pity and compassion, embrace both representation of the world and affective response to the world. Compassion is a crucial part of inter-personal knowledge: “compassion, in the philosophical tradition, is a central bridge between the individual and the community; it is conceived of as our species’ way of hooking the interests of others to our own personal goods” (28). Further, “compassion is a certain sort of reasoning” (29). And “all compassion is “rational” in the descriptive sense in which that term is frequently used—that is, not merely impulsive, but involving thought or belief” (30-31).

Here is the analysis of pity or compassion that Nussbaum attributes to Aristotle:

Pity, Aristotle argues, is a painful emotion directed at another person’s misfortune or suffering (Rhet. 1385bl3ff.). It requires and rests on three beliefs: (1) the belief that the suffering is serious rather than trivial; (2) the belief that the suffering was not caused primarily by the person’s own culpable actions; and (3) the belief that the pitier’s own possibilities are similar to those of the sufferer. Each of these seems to be necessary for the emotion, and they seem to be jointly sufficient. (31)

Nussbaum does not explicitly draw the connection between compassion and evil here that I believe is crucial — in fact, she does not explicitly discuss “evil” in either of these works — but the tie is straightforward. One fails utterly to understand the Holodomor or the killing pits of Poland or the Cathar Crusade if one fails to imagine the pain, suffering, and loss that each of these historical events involved, for millions of human beings. (Nussbaum refers to this particular form of moral blindness in her treatment of Emile in Upheavals; 322.) And, conversely, if one has a strongly developed capacity for the moral emotion of compassion, it is hard to see how he or she could consent to playing the role of an Eichmann or a Stangl. Here is a relevant comment by Nussbaum in the context of the dehumanization of the victims so often observed in the Holocaust and other instances of genocidal conduct:

This fact explains why so frequently those who wish to withhold pity and to teach others to do so portray the sufferers as altogether dissimilar in kind and in possibility. In The Destruction of the European Jews, Raul Hilberg shows how pervasively Nazi talk of Jews, in connection with their murder, portrayed them as nonhuman: either as beings of a remote animal kind, such as insects or vermin, or as inanimate objects, “cargo” to be transported. (35)

Nussbaum refers in Upheavals of Thought to other demeaning and dehumanizing mechanisms through which committers of atrocities reconcile their actions — for example, by portraying the victims as unclean and disgusting. “Thus the Germans forged the will to carry out the atrocities”(Upheavals, 348).

To what extent are our moral sensibilities subject to growth, education, and development? Like Susan Neiman (link), Nussbaum draws a connection to Rousseau and his treatment of the emotion of pity in Emile. She finds that Rousseau’s analysis of this moral emotion captures the fullness of reasoning and affect that she has described; and, crucially, she finds that Rousseau believes that compassion must be learned:

If Emile really does the cognitive work, if his imagination really contains the thoughts of pity, with all their evaluative material, in such a way that they become part of his cognitive makeup and his motivations for action, then he has pity whether he experiences this or that tug in his stomach or not. No such particular bodily feeling is necessary. To determine whether Emile has pity, we look for the evidence of a certain sort of thought and imagination, in what he says, and in what he does. (38)

And in Upheavals she returns to Rousseau:

I think that this, indeed, was Rousseau’s idea, when he said that Émile would learn compassion without hierarchy if his teacher taught him to focus on the common vulnerability of all human beings. “Thus from our weakness,” he concludes, “our fragile happiness is born.” Surrendering omnipotence is essential to compassion, and a broad compassion for one’s fellow citizens is essential to a decent society. (350)

Moreover, Nussbaum believes that the “teachability” of compassion is important: human beings and human cultures can improve their capacity for compassion through reflective experience.

If we believe that the ability to imagine the ills of another with vivid sympathy is an important part of being a good person, then we will want to follow Rousseau in giving support to procedures by which this ability is taught. Much of this will and should be done privately, in families. But every society employs and teaches ideals of the citizen, and of good civic judgment, in many ways; and there are some concrete practical strategies that will in fact support an education in compassion. (50)

Nussbaum believes that immersion in literature can assist with this learning. But I think she would agree with the idea that a close and honest reading of historians like Tim Snyder, Primo Levi, or Alexandr Solzhenitsyn can help with this form of moral development as well.

So several things seem clear. Compassion is crucial for recognizing the evil of the twentieth century; further, we can deepen our capacity for compassion by honestly confronting the atrocities of the period; and — just possibly — our future history will be better than our past because of this honesty. And Rousseau’s comments about compassion in Emile suggest another possibility as well: that we become different people, and our culture becomes a different culture, through this kind of immersive experience.

Organizational evil

image: IG Farben headquarters

A number of posts have confronted the historical realities of atrocities, genocide, and cruelty on a massive scale. The general question tying these discussions together has to do with individual human beings: “How could a normal human being with normal social emotions commit these atrocious acts?” And the individual question can be posed at a variety of levels of activity — the “ordinary men” whom Christopher Browning considers in Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland who directly killed thousands of men, women, and children; the mid-level commanders who did not themselves conduct the killings but ordered and organized them; the bureaucrats like Eichmann or Speer who oversaw the massive organizations needed to carry out mass genocide; and the dictators like Hitler and Stalin who deliberately ordered these actions. Concerning each of these men (and occasionally women) we can ask the question, “how could they have done this?”. This is a good question, and one that needs serious and extended study.

But there is another dimension of the evil of genocide: the role that organizations play in carrying out mass acts of atrocity against the innocent. Armies, governments, corporations, religious orders — organizations at many levels of scope were an essential part of the evils of the twentieth century. So it is important to ask the question of evil about organizations as well as about individuals; and the remedies we might consider are not likely to be the same. For example, it might have been effective in attempting to quell murderous ethnic cleansing in Bosnia to attempt to trigger the impulses of compassion, pity, and fellow feeling among the ordinary people whom Michael Mann describes in The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing who were readily recruited into killing teams and paramilitary groups that carried out murderous ethnic cleansing of Muslim neighbors; but this strategy is patently impossible with regard to organizations. Organizations do not feel sympathy, pity, or fellow feeling; rather, they carry out the tasks that have been set for them without moral appraisal. Organizations aren’t persons; there is no essential “humanity” in an organization. Organizations are more like machines than they are like individual human beings.

There is a field of research in organizational studies that is dedicated to the examination of “organizational evil,” and much of the content of this field is represented in the very interesting and challenging book edited by Carole Jurkiewicz, The Foundations of Organizational Evil. Jurkiewicz describes the concept of organizational evil in these terms in chapter 1 of the volume:

“Organizational evil” is used here to signify the institutionalization of a set of principles whose purpose is knowingly to harm individuals, with disregard for consequences beyond those that would cause immediate repercussions to the evil-doer. Whereas unethical behavior is episodic and individualistic in nature, evil is systemic and embedded in the culture of the organization. Programs, policies, practices, reward systems, hiring and training, external and internal relations—all are designed with the intention to seek immediate advantage through the deliberate harm of others.

It is noteworthy that contributors to this field are somewhat beguiled by the analogy between individual human beings and “corporate individuals”. This analogy shows up in several forms in the volume, including the application of Kohlberg’s theory of stages of moral development and the application of individual-level theories of psychopathology and the Narcissistic Personality Inventory to organizations. Both analogies are put forward in Chapter 1. For example: 

While the original research was focused on the individual level, it can be extrapolated to the organizational level as well being that organizations are defined as legal persons, as addressed later in this chapter. (chapter 1)

This is a surprising lapse, given the reality that organizations are fundamentally different from individuals in their forms of intentionality, purposiveness, and normativity (link). In particular, the Kohlberg theory of stages of moral reasoning seems to have no real relevance to corporate “persons”.

More convincing is the analysis that Jurkiewicz and Grossman give of the influence that organizations wield on the motivations, emotions, and behavior of the individuals who work within them. The “normalization” of killing documented by Christopher Browning is a relevant example: the validation by the organization and its leaders of the atrocious actions of killing the innocent offers participants part of the motivation needed to carry out their horrific tasks. Jurkiewicz and Grossman put the point in these terms:

As employees identify with the organization, a stable social system develops that perpetuates the culture while, at the same time, being defined by it. The stronger the culture, the more deeply employees share the value system, the greater the employee commitment, and the more willing employees are to submit to behavioral controls imposed by the organization. (chapter 1)

They also argue that, once established, a pattern of organizational imperatives to commit atrocities and compliance by subordinates creates a “leader-to-peer bonding” that makes further atrocity easier. They summarize this line of thought in these terms:

Organizational culture exerts powerful influence over individual behavior, because of both the reward structure and humans’ need to belong, but also significantly because the individual looks to those around him or her to determine what is right and what is wrong. (chapter 1)

Significantly, the authors emphasize that these dynamics can support “extreme evil” (killing squads) as well as more mundane forms of unethical organizational behavior (taking advantage of gullible elderly clients). 

In their contribution to the volume Guy Adams and Danny Balfour provide more detail about how organizations contribute to largescale evil-doing (“The Dynamics of Administrative Evil in Organizations”): 

What distinguishes administrative evil from other forms of evil is that its consequences are masked within the ethos of technical rationality. Ordinary people might simply be acting appropriately in their organizational role, just doing what is expected of them while participating in what a critical observer (usually well after the fact) would call evil. (chapter 2)

With diffuse and scattered information, literally no one in the organization might have a complete enough picture to adequately comprehend the destructive activity to try to reverse course. Those who have enough of a picture to perceive that something is wrong might well assume that higher management must be aware of the problem and has chosen to do nothing about it. (chapter 2).

...

While the psychological incentive to deny and cover up are clearly powerful, individuals in the organization have made a fundamental shift at the turning point from engaging in harmful or evil activities unknowingly to doing so knowingly. This has been termed the “evil turn” (Darley, 1996). It is evident that the incentives to cover up are socially powerful, if not indeed overwhelming, because it is widely known that a cover-up is highly unlikely to succeed and often results in the complete disclosure of the harmful or evil activities. (chapter 2)

These points all concern the social psychology, incentives, and motivation that exist for participants within an organization. 

As compliance accounts of human behavior suggest, social structures and organizational roles are far more powerful in shaping our behavior than we typically think. Within a culture of technical rationality, a model of professionalism that drives out ethics and moral reasoning offers all too fertile soil for administrative evil to emerge. (chapter 2)

But these authors do not appear to address the most fundamental question: are there features of organizations themselves that facilitate and encourage evil actions and policies in the world, quite apart from the intentions of the leaders of the organization? Are there organizational tendencies or dynamics that facilitate the capture of an organization by individuals or groups for evil purposes? Do evil-doers create organizations, or do organizations create evil-doers?

These points raise a number of important unanswered questions about organizations and the doing of evil. Do organizations sometimes create novel evils, or are they simply inexact tools for the goals of evil leaders and executives — transmission belts rather than motors? Do organizations amplify the willingness of individuals to engage in atrocious actions, or are they merely one relatively small source of influence on individual behavior? Does “organizational behavior” amount to more than an application of the Milgram results or the Stanford Prison Experiment results about the ways in which individual behavior is influenced by peers and authority figures (link)? Can we be at all precise about the role that organizations played in the carrying out of the Holocaust or the Holodomor? What is the connection between ordinary organizational functioning and the “banality of evil”? Are all organizations vulnerable to evil-doing, on a small scale or a large scale?

(See earlier posts on organizational culture and corruption for relevant material from Edgar Schein, Robert Klitgaard, and David Hess.)

The Antikythera mechanism

image: reconstructed device as created by UCL team

When we think about scientific and technological knowledge in the ancient world, one generally thinks of philosophy and a little bit of pre-scientific musing about the nature of reality. Water? Fire? Flux? The ancient Greeks had knowledge of mathematics and geometry, of course, and a certain level of descriptive astronomy. But nothing really surprising; their scientific and mathematical achievements were limited. Or so it seems. But take a look at this description of the Antikythera mechanism (link), the scientific paper by a research team at University College London (link), and the associated Vimeo video (link), and you’ll feel a jolt of paradigm shift about your assumptions about science and technology in the ancient world. This machine, dating from the second century BCE and discovered by sponge divers in the Mediterranean in 1901, was a corroded and incomplete group of fragments (one-third of the complete mechanism), and astonishingly enough, its workings have been decyphered and reconstructed. It is a geared device permitting the modeling and prediction of the motions of the five known planets, the moon, and the sun. Given that it represented the planetary bodies from the perspective of earth (geocentric model), the motions of the planets were complex and seemingly a bit chaotic. And the device itself is amazingly complex, embodying a layered set of gears with tooth counts permitting representation of the movements of the celestial objects. It was a complex and accurate analog computing device — from a civilization that flourished 2,200 years ago.

credit: Lin and Yan, Decoding the Mechanisms of Antikythera Astronomical Device (Springer 2016, p. 56)

The journey of research that has permitted decyphering the machine is remarkable enough. (The video tells much of that story.) But even more eye-opening is the completely novel insight the reconstruction offers into Greek astronomical mathematics, engineering sophistication, and (as-yet unknown) fabrication capabilities. Metallurgy, gearing, delicate assembly, remarkable design — the device is an amazing achievement demonstrating a background of advanced mathematical and technical expertise, and yet one that does not seem to have clear antecedents in the history of Greek science and engineering. So the discovery and reconstruction of the Antikythera mechanism seems roughly as surprising as it would be to find evidence of a network of electrical communication devices in an excavation of a medieval Frankish village: entirely at odds with our current understanding of the levels of scientific, technical, and engineering knowledge available in the time period.

The device cannot have been the result of a single “genius” inventor (e.g. Archimedes); its design and fabrication plainly required an infrastructure. And yet there are no other known artifacts from the ancient Greek Hellenic world with this level of sophistication. Parmenides comes into the mathematics of the device, and the mathematics of prime factors is crucial for the movements of the gears. A related device, the astrolabe, was invented and fabricated in the ancient Greek world in the second century BCE, which embodied a similar and fairly precise knowledge of planetary movements, but is orders of magnitude less complex. 

There is a great deal of useful background information on the device in Lin and Yan, Decoding the Mechanisms of Antikythera Astronomical Device (Springer, 2016). They summarize the possible history of this device in these terms:

It is confident that the device was not made by Archimedes, but might come from Syracuse in Sicily, the Corinthian colony where Archimedes had devised a planetarium in the third-century BC. Furthermore, it is speculative that the craftsmanship for making Antikythera device might be a heritage of manufacturing technique that originated with Archimedes in Syracuse. However, this attractive idea is waiting for proving. (57)

Lin and Yan also quote two passages from Cicero (d. 43 BCE) which appear to describe a mechanical device with similar functionality. The device described by Cicero is not the same design, however, because the text appears to make clear that the device is spherical in shape. Cicero lived roughly a century after the presumed date of the Antikythera mechanism invention.

Philus: … Listening one day to the recital of a similar prodigy, in the house of Marcellus, who had been his colleague in the consulship; he asked to see a celestial globe, which Marcellus’s grandfather had saved after the capture of Syracuse, from this magnificent and opulent city, without bringing home any other memorial of so great a victory. I had often heard this celestial globe or sphere mentioned on account of the great fame of Archimedes. Its appearance, however, did not seem to me particularly striking. There is another, more elegant in form, and more generally known, moulded by the same Archimedes, and deposited by the same Marcellus, in the Temple of Virtue at Rome. But as soon as Gallus had began to explain, by his sublime science, the composition of this machine, I felt that the Sicilian geometrician must have possessed a genius superior to any thing we usually conceive to belong to our nature. Gallus assured us, that the solid and compact globe, was a very ancient invention, and that the first model of it had been presented by Thales of Miletus. That afterwards Eudoxus of Cnidus, a disciple of Plato, had traced on its surface the stars that appear in the sky, and that many years subsequent, borrowing from Eudoxus this beautiful design and representation, Aratus had illustrated them in his verses, not by any science of astronomy, but the ornament of poetic description. He added, that the figure of the sphere, which displayed the motions of the Sun and Moon, and the five planets, or wandering stars, could not be represented by the primitive solid globe. And that in this, the invention of Archimedes was admirable, because he had calculated how a single revolution should maintain unequal and diversified progressions in dissimilar motions. In fact, when Gallus moved this sphere or planetarium, we observed the Moon distanced the Sun as many degrees by a turn of the wheel in the machine, as she does in so many days in the heavens. From whence it resulted, that the progress of the Sun was marked as in the heavens, and that the Moon touched the point where she is obscured by the earth’s shadow at the instant the Sun appears above the horizon. (Cicero, De republica)

It is not easy to find detailed histories of science and technology for the ancient world. (Where is Needham when we need him?) What appears to be the most important book available on the history of engineering in the ancient Greek world is J. G. Handels, Engineering in the Ancient World, Revised Edition. Here are the topics contained in the revised edition from 2002:

  • Power and energy sources
  • Water supplies and engineering
  • Water pumps
  • Cranes and hoists
  • Catapults
  • Ships and sea transport
  • Land transport
  • Progress of theoretical knowledge

There is no mention in this book of small gauge gearing, metallurgy, or clocks. The astrolab is not mentioned in the book either. Though gears and gear boxes appear in the index, these references appear to have to do with crude largescale applications in cranes or catapults rather than the fine small-gauge gearing required for clockwork or devices like the Antikythera mechanism.

The fascinating reconstruction of the Antikythera mechanism seems to have important implications for the telling of ancient history and philosophy: it would appear unavoidable that there were forms of knowledge and technique in the ancient Hellenic world that permitted the design and fabrication of remarkably complex and sophisticated mechanisms; and the mechanism itself reflected a sophisticated mathematical understanding of the movements of the planets. Science, astronomy, metallurgy, engineering, and techniques of metal working and fabrication appear to have been substantially more advanced than currently believed. And this in turn underlines a point that great historians have probably always understood: that the past is more complicated, more multi-faceted, and more surprising than we currently know.

Evil and the history of philosophy (Neiman)

As recent posts suggest, I am interested in finding appropriate ways of rethinking the philosophy of history so as to provide us with greater ability to confront the evils of the twentieth century. This involves some concrete questions about how we as human beings define ourselves in the world, in light of the histories our predecessors and contemporaries have created. How should human beings of the twenty-first century relate to the evil events of the twentieth century? And how can humanity grow from confronting this history honestly? I hope to address these questions through the idea that human beings can learn compassion and evil from history, and we human beings can change as a result. The idea is that reflecting upon the history of the Holocaust or the Holodomor seriously and honestly has the potential of changing our natures, making these crimes less likely in the future. 

Susan Neiman offers an abstract and philosophical treatment of evil in Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy (2002). (Fred Rush provides a highly thoughtful and detailed review of the book here.) Neiman describes her goals in the book in these terms:

This book traces changes that have occurred in our understanding of the self and its place in the world from the early Enlightenment to the late twentieth century. Taking intellectual reactions to Lisbon and Auschwitz as central poles of inquiry is a way of locating the beginning and end of the modern. (introduction)

The subtitle of her book is meaningful: “an alternative history of philosophy”. She wants to understand how philosophy changed its content by progressing from making sense of the Lisbon earthquake to making sense of the Holocaust. Plainly, her book is more about how philosophers have reacted to “evil” events in general terms, and less about the nature of those events themselves, or their perpetrators. (Indeed, there was no human perpetrator in the Lisbon earthquake.) Like John Kekes (link), she rejects the idea that the problem of evil is largely an issue for theology. But her interest is in philosophy, and how philosophers have conceptualized evil. “My interest is, rather, to explore what changes in our understanding of the problem of evil reveal about changes in our understanding of ourselves, and of our place in the world” (kl 264). And she proposes a novel way of classifying philosophers in the history of philosophy — not as rationalist vs. empiricist, and not primarily driven by epistemology and skepticism; but rather over their fundamental positions on the moral nature of the world: “is there another, better, truer order than the one we experience, or are the facts with which our senses confront us all that there is? Is reality exhausted by what is, or does it leave room for all that could be?” (kl 264). With this way of sorting philosophical approaches, Neiman finds justification in holding that the evolution of western philosophy is driven by the fact of indigestible evil in the world.

Here are the main premises of her argument:

1. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophy was guided by the problem of evil.

2. The problem of evil can be expressed in theological or secular terms, but it is fundamentally a problem about the intelligibility of the world as a whole.

3. The distinction between natural and moral evils is itself a historical one that developed in the course of the debate.

4. Two kinds of standpoint can be traced from the early Enlightenment to the present day, regardless of what sort of evil is in question, and each is guided more by ethical than by epistemological concerns. (introduction. kl 199)

Here is a fairly concise statement of her view of the relationship between the projects of European philosophy and evil:

Since I do not think an intrinsic property of evil can be defined, I am, rather, concerned with tracing what evil does to us. If designating something as evil is a way of marking the fact that it shatters our trust in the world, it’s that effect, more than the cause, which I want to examine. It should follow that I have even less intention of solving the problem of evil than I do of defining evil itself. My interest is, rather, to explore what changes in our understanding of the problem of evil reveal about changes in our understanding of ourselves, and of our place in the world. (kl 244)

I have called this an alternative history of philosophy because its aims are as different as its style and methods. One aim, in the felicitous expression of an anonymous reader, is to reorient the discipline to the real roots of philosophical questioning. I am grateful for the metaphor, which allows me to argue that, in some form or other, the problem of evil is the root from which modern philosophy springs. Once brought to life, philosophical discourse can grow on its own, and its branches may extend or tangle in all directions. Thus entire schools of thought could develop that have little to do with the questions raised here. (kl 290)

Though her primary interest is in developing the “alternative history of philosophy” that she presents, Neiman offers a view of the Holocaust and Auschwitz at a number of points in the book. She describes the atrocities of Auschwitz and Nazi extermination policies:

What occurred in Nazi death camps was so absolutely evil that, like no other event in human history, it defies human capacities for understanding. (kl 118)

Auschwitz, by contrast, stands for all that is meant when we use the word evil today: absolute wrongdoing that leaves no room for account or expiation. (kl 154)

And she provides an extended discussion of Arendt’s treatment of Eichmann in the final portion of the book.

But even here, her interest is less about “what happened?” and “how should we make sense of this episode of human history?” than about how twentieth-century philosophers sought to incorporate this specific and complex evil into their moral reckonings of the world — the “metaphysics” of evil rather than its practical importance in how we conceive of our lives. So it is fair to ask whether Neiman’s approach has much to contribute to these more the more concrete and experiential questions outlined above. But interestingly enough, Neiman’s book does have something to say about this idea. Specifically, Neiman’s treatment of Rousseau emphasizes Rousseau’s view of the malleability of human nature and emotions such as compassion. Neiman holds that this is a crucial part of Rousseau’s approach to the situation of evil in the world as well; in fact, she maintains that it is the feature of Rousseau’s philosophy that made him the “Newton” of the mind, according to Kant.

For Rousseau, both the problem of evil and its solution depend on the idea that evil developed over time. This assumes, in turn, that human beings develop over time, both as species and individual beings. Human nature has been altered…. For Rousseau, by contrast, human nature itself has a history. Our choices affect it.

History is the right kind of category to introduce because it enables us to understand the world and gives us hope for changing it. History leaves space between necessity and accident, making actions intelligible without being determined. If the introduction of evil was necessary, we can be saved only by a miracle. If it was an accident, then the world, where it matters, makes no sense. History, by contrast, is dynamic. If evil was introduced into the world, then it might also be eradicated—as long as its development is not fundamentally mysterious. After Rousseau, we need not deny the reality of evil. We can, rather, incorporate it into a world whose intelligibility is expanding. Exploring evil as historical phenomenon becomes part of our efforts to make the world more comprehensible in theory, and more acceptable in practice. (kl 862)

These are suggestive ideas for the experiential questions, because they point to the fundamental malleability of human culture and morality. Human nature and history are reciprocally intertwined. And this in turn suggests the possibility of the kind of “self-positing” and learning from history that seems most relevant to the approach to evil I want to take when it comes to bringing historical understanding into productive conversation with the extreme evils and atrocities of the twentieth-century.

It is clear that Evil in Modern Thought presents a radical thesis in intellectual history. Neiman argues that philosophers have quite fundamentally misunderstood the driving questions of their traditions: not epistemology, not metaphysics, but theodicy; not the question of how we know about our position in the natural world, or what is the nature of the world we inhabit; but rather, how can nature, humanity, and a benevolent god conspire to create such vast and incomprehensible suffering? Is this reorientation convincing? I find her arguments interesting and thought-provoking, but ultimately unconvincing. Her position is unconvincing, most fundamentally, because it is categorical. Neiman suggests an “either-or” interpretation of the driving questions of philosophy. This seems in the end to be too simple to accommodate the patchwork and plurality of questions, themes, and frameworks that have stimulated the development of various tributaries of European traditions in philosophy. 

More narrowly, Neiman’s point of view is only glancingly relevant to the most pressing question: how should we as human beings respond and change as a result of honest encounter with the facts of the Holocaust, Holodomor, genocide, torture, and enslavement? Here is an allegorical effort to begin to answer this question through an act of imagination (link). And here is a discussion of literary efforts by veterans of the Great War to make sense of their experiences through poetry and narrative (link).

Wickham on “feudalism”

Chris Wickham is perhaps Britain’s leading historian of European history between the end of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. His two books, The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 (2009) and Medieval Europe (2016), are rich and intriguing accounts of the heterogeneous and diverse histories that the period encompasses.

One topic in particular that is of interest to anyone with even a passing interest in medieval social history is the question of “feudalism”. Marx treated feudalism as the central social formation, the mode of production, of the Middle Ages. In the following century Marc Bloch’s historical writings were primarily focused on “feudalism”, including both the political arrangements of the system and the agrarian relations that the period embraced. Here is Bloch’s 1940 characterization of feudalism:

A subject peasantry; widespread use of the service tenement (i.e. the fief) instead of a salary, which was out of the question; the supremacy of a class of specialized warriors; ties of obedience and protection which bind man to man and, within the warrior class, assume the distinctive form called vassalage; fragmentation of authority—leading inevitably to dis-order; and, in the midst of all this, the survival of other forms of association, family and State, of which the latter, during the second feudal age, was to acquire renewed strength—such then seem to be the fundamental features of European feudalism. (Bloch, Feudal Society v. II: Social Classes and Political Organisation, kl 4413)

And here is Perry Anderson’s neo-Marxist summary description of the “feudal mode of production” in his 1974 Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism:

The feudal mode of production that emerged in Western Europe was characterized by a complex unity. Traditional definitions of it have often rendered this partially, with the result that it has become difficult to construct any account of the dynamic of feudal development. It was a mode of production dominated by the land and a natural economy, in which neither labour nor the products of labour were commodities. The immediate producer – the peasant – was united to the means of production – the soil – by a specific social relationship. The literal formula of this relationship was provided by the legal definition of serfdom glebae adscripti or bound to the earth: serfs had juridically restricted mobility. The peasants who occupied and tilled the land were not its owners. Agrarian property was privately controlled by a class of feudal lords, who extracted a surplus from the peasants by politico-legal relations of compulsion. This extra-economic coercion, taking the form of labour services, rents in kind or customary dues owed to the individual lord by the peasant, was exercised both on the manorial demesne attached directly to the person of the lord, and on the strip tenancies or virgates cultivated by the peasant. Its necessary result was a juridical amalgamation of economic exploitation with political authority. The peasant was subject to the jurisdiction of his lord. At the same time, the property rights of the lord over his land were typically of degree only: he was invested in them by a superior or noble (or nobles), to whom he would owe knight-service – provision of a military effective in time of war. His estates were, in other words, held as a fief. The liege lord in his turn would often be the vassal of a feudal superior, and the chain of such dependent tenures linked to military service would extend upwards to the highest peak of the system – in most cases, a monarch – of whom all land could in the ultimate instance be in principle the eminent domain. Typical intermediary links of such a feudal hierarchy in the early mediaeval epoch, between simple lordship and suzerain monarchy, were the castellany, barony, county or principality. The consequence of such a system was that political sovereignty was never focused in a single centre. The functions of the State were disintegrated in a vertical allocation downwards, at each level of which political and economic relations were, on the other hand, integrated. This parcellization of sovereignty was constitutive of the whole feudal mode of production. (147-148)

This tradition, from Marx through Bloch and Anderson, describes feudalism as a system that pervaded western Europe and depended upon bonded labor and a system of disaggregated political and military power. It is very interesting, therefore, that Wickham is reluctant about the concept of “feudalism” altogether. In The Inheritance of Rome he refers to the “feudal revolution”, but always in quotation marks and usually in reference to the academic debate with that label. (Bisson’s “Feudal Revolution” is a landmark for this debate; link.) Markham is somewhat more willing to use the term “feudal” in Medieval Europe without quote marks, but retains his skepticism about the concept. He distinctly does not regard the “European socio-economic-political world” as a unified system at all; rather, he sees a great deal of variation, local varieties, and different dynamics. Here is the idea that provides the key foundation of his skepticism: he insists on the heterogeneity of historical experience, social arrangements, and political regimes that existed across the expanse of territory encompassed by the map of western Eurasia.

Rather than looking for a single all-embracing concept of the “social and political system of the medieval period”, Markham insists on recognizing the diversity of arrangements found throughout the period, and the parallel importance of detailed historical investigation of various sub-regions. Franks, Magyars, Bulgars, Visigoths, Vandals, Lombards, Danes, Khazars, Anglo-Saxons, and Andalusian Muslims — the populations of various regions of Europe possessed their own histories and social arrangements, with influences flowing in all directions over time. Attempting to capture the social system of much of this map in terms of an abstract concept of “feudalism” is an error of historiography. There are commonalities across the regions and populations of the face of Europe, created by the fundamental existential circumstances of life in an environment with limited technology, communication, and travel. But the problems of material life, and the political and coercive arrangements through which groups of people were coordinated and controlled, varied across time and space. This critique can be put in terms of Weber’s idea of ideal types as well (link): the concept of feudalism is an ideal type, that accentuates some features of the social order and minimizes others, in order to capture a broad social reality in a compact description. But for Wickham the historian, this attempt is wrong-headed. We do not gain anything of intellectual value by asserting that rural England, Saxony, and the territory of the Khazars were all “feudal” in their fundamental social relations. 

Let’s look a little more closely at Markham’s account in the two books. A key idea in traditional conceptions of feudalism is the idea of “infeudation”, or the dispersal of authority, power, landed property, and military authority. Wickham introduces a number of novel ideas for describing the structure of medieval society, including especially cellularization, capillarization, and networks. In The Inheritance of Rome he introduced the idea of “cellularization” as a way of describing the social, economic, and political structure of medieval Europe. He attributes the concept to historian Robert Fossier (Enfance de l’Europe. Aspects économiques et sociaux. Tome 1: L’homme et son espace). The vocabulary of cellurization is used only twice in Inheritance, but it is used frequently in Medieval Europe. Here are a few examples from the latter book:

It [decentralized social life] marks a fundamental difference between the political systems of the early middle ages and those of later centuries, in which the public sphere had to be recreated, and always coexisted with a cellular structure of locally based powers, as we shall see in later chapters. (pp. 145-146). 

The French peasantry were increasingly caged inside the cellular structure of local power, and subjected, on top of rents, to lordly exactions which were often heavy, sometimes arbitrary, and always designed to underpin direct domination. (p. 180). 

Conversely, the weakening of the public framing for politics forced local powers to become better defined, creating the cellular structure of the future. And both of these developments fit what Marc Bloch meant by the ‘fragmentation of powers’: they were an always-possible consequence of the politics of land, in a world where the state was not separately supported by taxation. (pp. 180-181)

State-building was by now based on different, cellular, units: the newly legal, although of course highly exploitative, local lordships, large or small, of the eleventh century – to which we can now add the urban and rural communities of the twelfth, which gained their own autonomy, where they could, inside and against these lordships; and also dioceses, the cells of the international papal network. (p. 248)

The key implication of the language of “cellularization” in application to medieval society is the idea of extreme localization of most social, political, and economic activities. A cellular organism (in biology) is one that accomplishes its key metabolic activities based on processes under its immediate control — bacteria, fungi, and molds, for example. A complex multicellular organism is one that embodies a functional system of interdependence between different parts of the organism; a division of labor between different organs; and a complex system through which the metabolic needs of each cell in the organism are satisfied as a result of the activities and products of distant parts of the organism. Analogously for the social case: a large-scale non-cellular distributed social system depends upon a regional division of labor, a more or less well developed system of trade, communication, and transport, and a degree of central coordination of activities. By describing large swaths of medieval society as “cellular”, Markham is asserting autarky, self-sufficiency, and extremely limited trade for large parts of the territory of the region. Subsistence farming and handicraft production define the fundamental material terms of existence in such a world. The “cells” in this construction are not households or hamlets, but may be as large as minor lordships controlling a radius of a few dozen kilometers. But the structure is cellular nonetheless, because there is little connection among these units within the broader region.

Another term that Markham uses frequently is the idea of “capillarization” of revenues and power. For example —

The Lombard kings did not tax, after the first couple of generations of their rule at least. They operated entirely in the framework of a political practice based on land. But inside that framework, their hegemony was very great, and unusually detailed: their capillary power arguably extended to much more modest levels of society than the Frankish or Visigothic kings achieved. (146)

The state was much weaker in the post-Roman world, and one would not expect much of a tax-based movement of goods; an equivalent might be the movement of rents from one estate-centre to another, to feed landowners and kings who were located elsewhere, but the evidence we have for exchange, even in the relatively localized early Middle Ages, seems more capillary than that for the most part. (222)

That local lords in some cases were rising, militarized, families from the same community, former village-level medium owners or even former rich peasants (above, Chapter 21), did not make things any better; such families had a local knowledge that made domination easier, and also often had capillary hierarchical links with their neighbours or former neighbours, in the form of patron and client as well as landlord and tenant. (540)

This is a suggestive metaphor that evokes the minute subdivision of relationships through the social landscape. Capillarization in biology refers to the circulatory system of mammals and other orders; the capillaries are the very small blood vessels that proliferate through tissue and lungs to deliver nutrients and oxygen and remove waste products. So the key idea is “proliferation of a broadening network of channels”. In the circulatory context, the fluid moves in a complete circuit — traveling from the heart to tissue and returning. Here is a diagram:

In applying the idea of capillarization to the medieval social world, it is not entirely clear that the processes in question are circulatory (out-bound and in-bound). Rather, it seems that Wickham has in mind an extractive capillary system, in which a central fiscal power has established channels through which taxes or labor services flow from periphery to center. (This description does not imply that the power in question is “king”; it may be a regional lord controlling an extended territory.) On this view, the system will look more like the branching network of the roots of a tree:

On either scenario, the meaning of capillarization is reasonably clear: it involves the proliferation of channels of influence permitting the flow of taxes and products from local to regional places (the tree-root system) or possibly a roundtrip flow of services from the center to periphery and a return trip conveying taxes and labor services from periphery to center. We might say, then, that a “capillarized” rural society is no longer cellular; rather, it is interpenetrated by a system of circulation or extraction that succeeds in delivering products, ideas, or commands from a “center” to “periphery” and return.

Finally, Wickham often analyzes rural society — and occasionally town and city society — in terms of the networks of activity that can be discerned at the distance of a thousand years. Sometimes he applies this idea in terms of “social networks” — groups of individuals connected by family, loyalty, friendship, etc. — who are then able to call upon each other in times of need for collaboration or completion. Sometimes the networks that he describes are defined in terms of information flows — the flow of ideas through the Christian church establishment across a territory. A third application has to do with trade and market relationships, both nearby and distant.

The motor of exchange before 800 was, broadly, aristocratic wealth and buying-power; the richer élites were, the more they were able to sustain large-scale networks of production and distribution. (550)

These ideas are suggestive. But do they enable a significantly different view of the economic and political structure of feudal society — or do these terms simply provide a different vocabulary for describing the system that is familiar from Bloch? We might say that these concepts differ from traditional concepts of feudalism — even as they aim to capture similar social characteristics — in virtue of their abstraction. The concept of “infeudation” used by Marx and Bloch is inseparable from other specific assumptions about military subordination among lords, the lack of power of rural producers, and the nature of central political or monarchical power. The concepts of cellularization, capillarization, and a networked regional society are neutral about the nature of the power relations that sustain these social relations among individuals and communities. They serve to describe the “topology” of economics and power in the circumstances of the natural and technological environment of the period in Eurasia between 500 CE and 1500 CE without making specific assumptions about the legal instantiations of these relationships. 

In an unexpected way, Wickham’s use of these concepts might be seen as a more abstract theoretical application of the most fundamental ideas of historical materialism articulated by Marx. The argument goes something like this: Human beings in X region in the eighth century find themselves in small nucleated settlements with very little ability to communicate or transport goods or people to places more than 25 kilometers distant. They satisfy their needs by farming and handicraft, and they cultivate for the purpose of consumption. (They are thus “cellularized”.) More distant powerful figures (“lords in waiting”) have an interest in gaining access to some of their crops. These figures gain coercive ability (armed groups) capable of extracting tribute (rent, taxes, tribute, gifts) from peasant communities. The hamlets become “cellularized”: multiple hamlets are drawn into extractive relationships with more distant bosses who dominate them. Land and peasant labor are the primary sources of wealth; so the lords compete over territory and the right to extract from their “dominions”. Cellularization and the growth of capillaries and networks are then comprehensible results rather than simply being the embodiments of “infeudation”. 

(It would be very interesting to consider the passage from Perry Anderson quoted above and construct a sentence-by-sentence analysis and critique based on Wickham’s historical accounts of Eurasian developments during the centuries considered. This would establish fairly precisely the ways in which Wickham’s account differs from traditional accounts of “feudalism”.)

Epicurean advertising?

image: Epicurus inscription at Oenoanda (credit Jack A. Waldron (link))

In The Consolations of Philosophy Alain de Botton offers an interesting observation concerning one of the sequels to Epicureanism — a massive public wall carving commissioned by Diogenes of Oenoanda (a small city in what is now Turkey). Diogenes of Oenoanda (not to be confused with the more famous Cynic philosopher, Diogenes of Sinope, who lived in a wine barrel) was an Epicurean Greek philosopher of the second century AD, and his portico in the public market of Oenoanda was filled with thousands of quotations and texts from Epicurean philosophy (link). (Here are English translations of the existing fragments (link), and here is a very interesting blog post of a bicycle visit to the archeological materials of Oenoanda; link.) Botton describes the scene in these terms:

In the AD 120s, in the central market-place of Oinoanda, a town of 10,000 inhabitants in the south-western corner of Asia Minor, an enormous stone colonnade 80 metres long and nearly 4 metres high was erected and inscribed with Epicurean slogans for the attention of shoppers: 

“Luxurious foods and drinks … in no way produce freedom from harm and a healthy condition in the flesh.”

“One must regard wealth beyond what is natural as of no more use than water to a container that is full to overflowing.”

“Real value is generated not by theatres and baths and perfumes and ointments … but by natural science.”

 The wall had been paid for by Diogenes, one of Oinoanda’s wealthiest citizens, who had sought, 400 years after Epicurus and his friends had opened the Garden in Athens, to share with his fellow inhabitants the secrets of happiness he had discovered in Epicurus’s philosophy. As he explained on one corner of the wall: ‘Having already reached the sunset of my life (being almost on the verge of departure from the world on account of old age), I wanted, before being overtaken by death, to compose a fine anthem to celebrate the fullness of pleasure and so to help now those who are well-constituted. Now, if only one person, or two or three or four or five or six … were in a bad predicament, I should address them individually … but as the majority of people suffer from a common disease, as in a plague, with their false notions about things, and as their number is increasing (for in mutual emulation they catch the disease from each other, like sheep) … I wished to use this stoa to advertise publicly medicines that bring salvation.’ (67)

What is interesting to me — beyond the existence of the site itself — is Botton’s interpretation of the installation and the meaning that he attributes to it. Botton interprets this large 80 meter by 4 meter stone wall carving as a form of advertising on behalf of the benefits of Epicurean philosophy. This is a striking piece of historical writing, in large part because it juxtaposes a quintessentially modern activity (marketing and advertising) with ordinary life in the ancient world. But does the concept of “advertising” have any literal meaning in the ancient world? Surely it does not. The word “advertise” contained in the quotation from Diogenes (represented on the wall itself) seems to have the meaning simply to “publicize” or “draw attention to”. Here is the full passage of Diogenes’ statement in translation by the archeology team:

Having already reached the sunset of my life (being almost on the verge of departure from the world on account of old age), I wanted, before being overtaken by death, to compose a [fine] anthem [to celebrate the] fullness [of pleasure] and so to help now those who are well-constituted. Now, if only one person or two or three or four or five or six or any larger number you choose, sir, provided that it is not very large, were in a bad predicament, I should address them individually and do all in my power to give them the best advice. But, as I have said before, the majority of people suffer from a common disease, as in a plague, with their false notions about things, and their number is increasing (for in mutual emulation they catch the disease from one another, like sheep) moreover, [it is] right to help [also] generations to come (for they too belong to us, though they are still unborn) and, besides, love of humanity prompts us to aid also the foreigners who come here. Now, since the remedies of the inscription reach a larger number of people, I wished to use this stoa to advertise publicly the [medicines] that bring salvation. These medicines we have put [fully] to the test; for we have dispelled the fears [that grip] us without justification, and, as for pains, those that are groundless we have completely excised, while those that are natural we have reduced to an absolute minimum, making their magnitude minute.

Our modern concept of advertising is not just about “public expression of an opinion.” Rather, it has everything to do with an extensive market economy, a consumer culture, and a social world in which persuasion and the shaping of tastes and wants is a developed professional activity. It has to do with deliberate efforts to market and sell a given product. In other words, “advertising” is a concept that invokes a complex social practice that depends on a set of social relations that did not exist in the second century of the common era. (Here is an earlier post on the invention of advertising in the twentieth century; link.)

But this suggests that Botton’s central interpretive point here is faulty: “To counteract the power of luxurious images Epicureans appreciated the importance of advertising” (67). This is surely false: it was no more possible for the Epicureans to “appreciate the importance of advertising” than they could understand chivalry, the trinity, or “socialism in one country”. The social relationships and semantic concepts upon which these ideas depend had not yet been invented. It is pure anachronism, a soft drink can left on the shooting set of an episode of Game of Thrones. Much safer, but less dramatic, would be to say something that clearly was true: “Epicureans appreciated the importance of persuading.” But Botton’s taste for striking phrases and images gets the better of him here; and as a result, he slips into bad historical interpretation.

Making sense of atrocities

Reading Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 has made me aware of something outside his storyline: the normal, routine, and unremarked willingness of medieval peasant-soldiers, leaders, bands, and armies to slaughter one another, to kill the disarmed, to enslave prisoners, and to do all these things with apparently no compunction. Vikings, Franks, Bulgars, Huns, and Romans massacred and burned. Here is just one example, from the wars of Charlemagne:

Saxony was hard to conquer precisely because it was disunited, and it was the theatre of considerable violence, not least for the 4,500 Saxon prisoners massacred in 782 after a Frankish defeat. The conquest was by 780 associated with a conscious process of Christianization; this was one of the few conversion processes openly brought about by force in our period. (378)

Or, when we get around to the high and mighty, we find kings, generals, and emperors who maim and kill their rivals, including often enough members of their own families. Blinding one’s rival or one’s brother-in-law, maiming the face or body, these were familiar ways of dealing permanently with a rival. The crimes represented in Greek tragedy were not imaginary.

What are we to make of this fairly simple historical fact about the behavior of our human ancestors a mere 1500 years ago?

Does it imply that “human nature” is inherently cruel and indifferent to the suffering of other human beings, and that compassion is a cultural discovery or innovation?

Does it imply that restraints on violence depend upon social structures and cultural creations — laws, norms, and institutions setting boundaries on violence?

Is there such a thing as a “civilizational” turning away from violence against the innocent? Did human institutions (military law, international conventions, religion) and invented and disseminated moral values (“it is horrible and shameful to harm or kill the innocent”) change the occurrence of atrocity? (John Keegan quotes views to this effect to explain the fact that studies indicated that only 25% of battlefield soldiers fire their weapons in World War II.)

The Ten Commandments have been the foundation of monotheistic religious ethics for more than three thousand years — including the prohibition against murder. Did monotheistic religions change the behavior of individuals, bands, armies, and states? Were Christian Visigoths or Vandals less cruel in war? Did the armies of Islam commit these same kinds of atrocities, or did the kindness preached by the Prophet prevail? What about ancient Judaism and Jewish communities? For that matter, what about the converts to Judaism in the Khazars — did they massacre their enemies just as wantonly?

Most importantly, does this changing history of cruelty on a mass scale suggest that our human sensibilities themselves have changed in a millennium and a half, so human beings in typical social circumstances are no longer so ready to kill and maim their fellow human beings? Does a religion, a personal value scheme sincerely embraced, or adherence to an ideal of how one should value the human experience and life of anonymous others effectively change a person’s social psychology? Can compassion and pity be learned or culturally reproduced?

But if so, what about My Lai, Lt. Calley, and Ghraib Prison? What about Isis beheadings, burnings, and rapes? What about the vicious brutality of Trump rioters against police on January 6?

Here is a fairly concrete question: what did ancient writers and philosophers have to say about the killing of the innocent? Did Seneca or Lucretius make any pronouncements on the behavior of armies, massacre, or killing of the innocent? Here is Seneca, writing in roughly 50 CE, about the morally corrosive effects of the crowd at the “games” (Letters from a Stoic):

2. To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger. 

But nothing is so damaging to good character as the habit of lounging at the games; for then it is that vice steals subtly upon one through the avenue of pleasure. 3. What do you think I mean? I mean that I come home more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman, because I have been among human beings. By chance I attended a mid-day exhibition, expecting some fun, wit, and relaxation,—an exhibition at which men’s eyes have respite from the slaughter of their fellow-men. But it was quite the reverse. The previous combats were the essence of compassion; but now all the trifling is put aside and it is pure murder. The men have no defensive armour. They are exposed to blows at all points, and no one ever strikes in vain. 4. Many persons prefer this programme to the usual pairs and to the bouts “by request.” Of course they do; there is no helmet or shield to deflect the weapon. What is the need of defensive armour, or of skill? All these mean delaying death. In the morning they throw men to the lions and the bears; at noon, they throw them to the spectators. The spectators demand that the slayer shall face the man who is to slay him in his turn; and they always reserve the latest conqueror for another butchering. The outcome of every fight is death, and the means are fire and sword. This sort of thing goes on while the arena is empty. 5. You may retort: “But he was a highway robber; he killed a man!” And what of it? Granted that, as a murderer, he deserved this punishment, what crime have you committed, poor fellow, that you should deserve to sit and see this show? In the morning they cried “Kill him! Lash him! Burn him! Why does he meet the sword in so cowardly a way? Why does he strike so feebly? Why doesn’t he die game? Whip him to meet his wounds! Let them receive blow for blow, with chests bare and exposed to the stroke!” And when the games stop for the intermission, they announce: “A little throat-cutting in the meantime, so that there may still be something going on!” 

Come now; do you not understand even this truth, that a bad example reacts on the agent? Thank the immortal gods that you are teaching cruelty to a person who cannot learn to be cruel. 6. The young character, which cannot hold fast to righteousness, must be rescued from the mob; it is too easy to side with the majority. Even Socrates, Cato, and Laelius might have been shaken in their moral strength by a crowd that was unlike them; so true it is that none of us, no matter how much he cultivates his abilities, can withstand the shock of faults that approach, as it were, with so great a retinue. 7. Much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed; the familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperceptibly; the neighbour, if he be rich, rouses our covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous, rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless and sincere. What then do you think the effect will be on character, when the world at large assaults it! You must either imitate or loathe the world. (Seneca, letter VII)

The text treats cruelty obliquely. This is not his primary target; rather, Seneca uses the scene of the “exhibition” as an occasion for making a different point — the harmfulness of associating with “the crowd”. But in his framing of the example, he makes it clear that he sees the behavior of the crowd as detestable and awful in its bloodthirstiness and cruelty. And he sees the behavior as contagious: when a virtuous person — even a Socrates or Cato — is exposed to this sight, he will be harmed in his virtue. And why is this cruelty awful? Because, it would seem, it involves the horrible imposition of pain, mutilation, and death on the weak, for the entertainment of the many. It is recognition of the human reality of the pain and desperation of the victims that motivates Seneca, it seems; he is empathetic with these other unfortunate human beings.

The historical evolution of massacre and cruelty raises huge and important questions. The topic converges with an earlier discussion of the Athenian massacre of the Melians, described in Thucydides (link). And the questions are genuinely difficult to answer. Human nature? Moral progress? The favorable role of religion? Institutions designed to limit violence? Perhaps some will even consider the intuition embraced by Dr. King in 1967 — “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” But if we want to understand the particular evils of the twentieth century — Holocaust, Holodomor, and Gulag, to name just the most awful — we need to consider the nature and situations of the human beings — versions of ourselves — who have committed acts like these at other times in history.

(Relevant books to consider on this topic include John Keegan’s The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme, Glenn Gray’s The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, and Philip Hallie’s Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There.)

The late Roman Empire and what came next …

There is a great deal of drama in the fairly limited ideas we have today about the passing of the Roman Empire, the consolidation of “barbarian” kingdoms, and the rise of the Islamic presence in Europe. In particular, there is the drama of the sacking of Rome and the end of Roman civilization; an extended period of ignorance and economic collapse across the continent of Europe; and the rapid spread of an intolerant Christianity. 

Two books shake up those narratives — one fairly recent and the other almost a century old. Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 appeared in 2010, while Henri Pirenne’s Mohammed and Charlemagne appeared in Belgium in 1922. But both books challenge the most basic assumptions of common narratives of the transition from Roman civilization to the Renaissance. The “dark ages” weren’t dark, and the “Middle Ages” weren’t just a thousand-year ellipsis between Roman civilization and the Renaissance. Here I’ll examine Pirenne’s arguments, and in a later post I will look at Wickham’s recent contributions.

Henri Pirenne was one of the twentieth century’s most distinguished medieval historians and a teacher of Marc Bloch (linklink). The most surprising finding in his book is that the sack of Rome in 411 was a non-event; the “barbarian” invasions of Rome, including the Germanic wars, were almost equally inconsequential; and that it was the military threat and invasion of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries that fundamentally altered the Roman order. The hinge, according to Pirenne, was control of the Mediterranean Sea. When Rome and its allies lost maritime control of the Mediterranean to Islamic fleets, its power, economic system, and cultural hegemony were finished. A major part of this crucial role for sea-born commerce was the fact that the Roman Empire depended upon cheap grain from Africa for its survival. Losing control of the Mediterranean meant losing its lifeline to bread and chocolate (or bread anyway).

Thanks to the Mediterranean, then, the Empire constituted, in the most obvious fashion, an economic unity. It was one great territory, with tolls but no custom houses. And it enjoyed the enormous advantage of a common monetary unit, the gold solidus of Constantine, containing 4˙55 grammes of fine gold, which was current everywhere. (5)

But Roman power failed to hold the Mediterranean, and Vandal king Genseric succeeded in seizing Carthage:

Succeeding where the Goths had failed, Genseric, in 427, with the aid of the Carthaginian ships, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and landed 50,000 men upon the African coast. For the Empire this was the decisive blow. The very soul of the Republic—says Salvian—was destroyed. When in 439 Genseric captured Carthage —that is, the great naval base of the West—and then, shortly afterwards, took possession of Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearics, the position of the Empire in the West was completely shaken. It had lost the Mediterranean, which had hitherto been its great weapon of defence. (14)

The barbarian tribes prevailed in the West; but the structures, political institutions, and culture of Rome survived. The tribal victors were Romanized.

Thus, at the beginning of the 6th century there was not an inch of soil in the West still subject to the Emperor. At first sight the catastrophe seems enormous; so enormous that the fall of Romulus has been regarded as beginning a second act of the world-drama. But if we examine it more closely it seems less important. (For the Emperor still had a legal existence. He had abdicated nothing of his sovereignty. The old fiction of the allies was maintained. And the new upstarts themselves acknowledged his primacy. (18)

There could be no greater mistake than to suppose that the idea of the Empire disappeared after the dismemberment of the Western Provinces by the Barbarians. There is no justification for doubting that the βασιλεὺς who reigned in Constantinople still extended his theoretical authority over the whole Empire. He no longer governed, but he still reigned. And it was toward him that all men’s eyes were turned. (41)

So the replacement of direct rule by Roman governors by barbarian kings fulfilling much the same functions in much the same way presented little drama for the societies in the west in which this transformation occurred in the fifth and sixth centuries. Pirenne provides a short outline of the structure of society, which as he notes, includes the embryo of feudalism:

As for the social classes, they were the same as before. The upper class consisted of freemen (ingenui), and it included an aristocracy of great landowners (senatores). The class of free citizens properly so-called probably constituted a minority. Beneath them were the colonists, especially numerous among the Visigoths, and the liberated slaves. There were still plenty of slaves. As we shall presently see, they were mostly alien Barbarians, Anglo-Saxon or others, prisoners of war. There was also an urban population of which we shall say something presently. On the large estates there were workshops in which the women spun yarn, and in which other workers, slaves or domainal serfs, practised various crafts. But these workshops had already existed during the later centuries of the Empire. The population had retained the form which had been impressed upon it by the fiscal organization, although this had been greatly diminished by the almost complete curtailment of the military and administrative expenditure. (54)

And so — little change as a result of the “fall of the Roman Empire”:

From whatever standpoint we regard it, then, the period inaugurated by the establishment of the Barbarians within the Empire introduced no absolute historical innovation. What the Germans destroyed was not the Empire, but the Imperial government in partibus occidentis. They themselves acknowledged as much by installing themselves as foederati. Far from seeking to replace the Empire by anything new, they established themselves within it, and although their settlement was accompanied by a process of serious degradation, they did not introduce a new scheme of government; the ancient palazzo, so to speak, was divided up into apartments, but it still survived as a building. In short, the essential character of “Romania” still remained Mediterranean. (p. 104)

By contrast, Pirenne believes the Islamic assault on the Western Roman Empire in the seventh century was transformative, catastrophic, and entirely unexpected. “The Empire had never regarded this as one of its vulnerable points, nor had it ever massed there any large proportion of its military forces” (110). And: “The Arab conquest, which brought confusion upon both Europe and Asia, was without precedent. The swiftness of its victory is comparable only with that by which the Mongol Empires of Attila, Jenghiz Khan and Tamerlane were established. But these Empires were as ephemeral as the conquest of Islam was lasting” (p. 112).

Pirenne is first and foremost an economic historian, and the evidence he finds most compelling is the material evidence of trade. In particular, he takes note of evidence of the availability of spices and papyrus at various times in late antiquity, and draws a crucial conclusion: trade routes between western ports and eastern sources were severed, leading to a complete disappearance of these valuable products in cities and monasteries in the west. In the sixth century these products were widely available in the West:

Papyrus was another thing that came from the East, and of which great quantities were consumed. Egypt had the monopoly of furnishing the whole Empire with the writing material in general use, parchment being reserved for special purposes. Now, both after and before the invasions the art of writing was practised throughout the West. It was a necessary constituent of social life. The juridical and administrative life of the Empire, the very functioning of the State, necessitated the practice of the art, and the same may be said of social relations. The merchants had their clerks, mercenarii litterati. Masses of papyrus must have been required by those who kept the registers of the fisc, by the notaries of the tribunals, by private correspondents, and by the monasteries. (pp. 65-66)

From the middle of the seventh century (about 650 AD) onwards the major trade between the west and the east was broken. The evidence is clear for Pirenne, beginning with papyrus:

Papyrus was the first to disappear. All the works written in the West on papyrus of which we have knowledge are of the 6th or the 7th century. Until 659–677 nothing but papyrus was used in the royal Merovingian chancellery. Then parchment made its appearance.592 A few private documents were still written on papyrus, doubtless obtained from old stocks of this material, until nearly the end of the 8th century. There is no sign of it after that. And the explanation cannot be that it was no longer manufactured, for this supposition is disproved by the beautiful papyrus documents of the 7th century in the Arab Museum of Cairo. The disappearance of papyrus in Gaul can only have been due to the fact that commerce first declined and then ceased. Parchment does not seem to have been widely used at first. Gregory of Tours, who calls it membrana, mentions it only once,593 and seems to indicate that it was manufactured by the monks for their own use. Now, we know that the habits of a chancellery are extremely tenacious. If at the close of the 7th century the royal offices had ceased to make use of papyrus it was because it was becoming very difficult to obtain any. (129)

And along with trade, the largescale traders disappeared as well:

One consequence of the suppression of the Oriental trade and maritime traffic was the disappearance of professional merchants in the interior of the country. Henceforth merchants are hardly ever mentioned in the documents of the period; any references that do occur may be understood as applying to occasional merchants. I can find no mention at this period of a single negotiator of the Merovingian type: that is, a merchant who lent money at interest, was buried in a sarcophagus, and gave of his goods to the churches and the poor. (132)

Pirenne believes that two factors explained the successes of the Islamic invasion. The first was ideological, and the second was naval. The religious ideas and values of Islam sustained a separate identity for Islamic occupiers in previously held territory; unlike the Franks or the Goths, they were not “romanized”. And the naval power of Islamic forces proved to be formidable.

That Charlemagne was able to derive so little advantage from the taking of Barcelona was due to the fact that he had no fleet. He could do nothing against the Saracens, who were in possession of Tunis, dominated the Spanish coast, and held the islands. He attempted to defend the Balearics, and won some ephemeral victories there. In 798 these islands were ravaged by the Musulmans. (120)

And with maritime and naval supremacy came the ability to dominate the Mediterranean:

So long as the Mediterranean remained Christian, it was the Oriental navigation that maintained commercial intercourse with the Occident. Syria and Egypt were its two principal centres; and these two wealthy provinces were the very first to fall under the domination of Islam. It would obviously be an error to believe that this domination put an end to all economic activity. Although there was great confusion and disorder, and although many Syrians migrated to the Occident, we must not suppose that the economic machinery collapsed. Damascus had become the first capital of the Caliphate. Spices were still imported, papyrus was still manufactured, the seaports were still active. Once they paid taxes to the conquerors, the Christians were not molested. Commerce, therefore, continued, but its direction was changed. (124)

Pirenne draws two central conclusions — the persistence of “Mediterranean” civilization for centuries following the barbarian onslaughts of the 5th century, and the crucial historical role played in the transformation of this system by the advance of Islam.

1. The Germanic invasions destroyed neither the Mediterranean unity of the ancient world, nor what may be regarded as the truly essential features of the Roman culture as it still existed in the 5th century, at a time when there was no longer an Emperor in the West. Despite the resulting turmoil and destruction, no new principles made their appearance; neither in the economic or social order, nor in the linguistic situation, nor in the existing institutions. What civilization survived was Mediterranean. It was in the regions by the sea that culture was preserved, and it was from them that the innovations of the age proceeded: monasticism, the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, the ars Barbarica, etc. The Orient was the fertilizing factor: Constantinople, the centre of the world. In 600 the physiognomy of the world was not different in quality from that which it had revealed in 400. 

2. The cause of the break with the tradition of antiquity was the rapid and unexpected advance of Islam. The result of this advance was the final separation of East from West, and the end of the Mediterranean unity. Countries like Africa and Spain, which had always been parts of the Western community, gravitated henceforth in the orbit of Baghdad. In these countries another religion made its appearance, and an entirely different culture. The Western Mediterranean, having become a Musulman lake, was no longer the thoroughfare of commerce and of thought which it had always been. (228)

What is fascinating about this work for the philosophy of history is the support it provides for the idea that the past is not “given”, and the history of an epoch is never finished and complete. Instead, the practice of historical research and writing has the continuing possibility of discovering new truths about a past that we thought we understood. 

(Discussions of late Roman history have appeared elsewhere in the blog over the years (linklinklinklinklink). Here are a few useful maps ranging over the centuries of change described by Pirenne.)

AD 117
AD 300 (Emperor Diocletian)
AD 411 (Alaric sacks Rome)

AD 526
AD 815
AD 900