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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Paris II: The Sun King, Napoleon and the End of the French Monarchy

Later we visit the L’Hôtel des Invalides, Louis the XIV’s hospital for wounded veterans.  It was, if effect, the first Veteran’s Administration, and modern France still has some elements of its department of veteran’s affairs housed in this building, but extensive portions of the building now house military museums. Under its immense 18th century gold-trimmed dome lie the tombs of France’s greatest marshals, including the grand red porphyry tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte.

L'Hotel des Invalides

Invalides was only a small part of Louis building program.  The centerpiece of his efforts was Le Palais de Versailles which he deliberately built outside Paris for the purposes of isolating and controlling court life.  But all of Louis’s achievements were part of his larger plan for France, and to understand Louis, one must understand his early history, and the Great Chain of Being.

The Palace of Versailles was built outside of Paris to isolate the Aristocracy and concentrate power on the the monarch
L'Halle des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) where the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919

The Great Chain of Being was the cornerstone of religious and philosophical life throughout the Dark and Middle Ages.  It combined Biblical teaching and the thinking of the classical period, particularly Aristotle, into a cosmology based upon order.  God was at the top in his Heaven, Satan at the bottom in Hell, and all creatures and material were ordered in their rightful places, governed by the celestial music of the spheres and the properties of the humors.  When we refer to the four elements; earth air fire and water, and to astrology, we are referencing parts of that cosmology.  This was critical to medieval social life because it also specified invariant social ranks that comprised feudalism.  Kings were closest to God and ruled in his name, and under them were the clergy, the aristocracy, the landed peasantry and artisans and at the bottom, landless serfs.  Because it was believed that this was God’s law, and therefore invariant, Renaissance observations about gravity and celestial mechanics threatened to upset the entire cosmic applecart.  A good feudal life was governed by accepting one’s place in the cosmic scheme of things, rather than upon social advancement.  Technological changes were promoting a new middle class, and literacy was spreading.  Trade, ideas from the East, and the rediscovery of the classics themselves were threatening the rigidity of feudalism.  When Louis came to power in 1638, the Great Chain of Being was coming unraveled.
The Great Chain, the Humors and the Spheres:  The Aristotelian cosmology underlying feudalism.  Natal charts, anyone?
As a child, Louis had seen the violence against the monarchy during a peasant and aristocratic rebellion, the Fronde.  He particularly feared that he would be at the mercy of his own aristocracy.  He drew France out of feudalism by centralizing all power on himself.  Locking the aristocracy away in Versailles and setting them on a mad scramble to attend his levèe, and seeing to his own armies needs rather than having to negotiate with aristocrats to borrow theirs, Louis sought to secure his place in the Great Chain of Being.  He was the apotheosis of the Enlightenment ruler, an absolutist’s absolutist.  The ‘Sun King,’ and the French court were the envy of Europe.  
Hyacinthe Rigaud's 1701 portrait of Louis XIV (ruled 1628-1715).  Louis liked it so well he had two copies made.  One hangs in the the Louvre, the other in Versailles.  Nice gams for a man of 62!
But for all of his efforts, Louis could not prevent, and even sped up the unraveling of the Great Chain of Being.  He taxed both the aristocracy and the peasantry so that France had no reserves when famine struck after his reign and contributed to an erosion of faith in his successors.  His glory made them look weak by comparison.  He also revoked the treaty of Nantes which decreed religious tolerance in France and expelled the French Protestants, the Huguenots, who constituted a major portion of his commercial class, and he warred constantly, draining his own treasury.  While he succeeded in adding significantly to the territory of France to borders that approximate France today, he actually lost all of his wars with England.  Within 100 years of his 70 year reign, the longest of all the major European monarchs, France would be ruled by the commoner Napoleon Bonaparte, who would crown himself Emperor because no one else, certainly not the Pope, was qualified to do so!  Now that’s absolutism even Louis would never have dreamed of! 

But the Sun King’s singular achievement was that he invented the modern state, and his Hôtel des Invalides is the perfect symbol.  His most famous quote “L’Etat, c’est moi!” (“I am the state.”) was probably apocryphal, although he often lived and ruled so as to give that appearance.  Given his fear of rebellion, however, Louis conduct in retrospect appears driven to promote this view out of defensiveness, rather than entitlement.  Whatever his underlying motivation, Louis set the standards by which all monarchs were judged.

Napoleon commanding his Marshals on the battlefield of Eylau, 1807.  This battle was a costly draw, the first check in an otherwise unbroken string of victories.  It is estimated about 4-6 million died in the Napoleonic Wars (1798-1815).  Four months later Napoleon crushed the Russians at Friedland, humiliated Prussia and forced the Russians into the Continental System.
I am a great admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte, although it is hard to get comfortable with the self-aggrandizing rhetoric extolling his virtues as a statesman, economic development specialist and educator engraved on the walls surrounding his tomb under the Èglise du Dome. He chose a very different route to absolute power, one tailored to a very different age.  His greatest feat was molding the raw material of the world’s first conscript army into an instrument for defending a revolution the ideals of which he had already personally usurped.  He replaced the state army of Louis, based on privilege, servility, and social climbing, with one that was thoroughly professional and advancement was based upon merit.  Some of this was done out of pure necessity; all the monarchies of Europe allied to put down a revolution that each recognized might consume them all, so France was in a state of almost constant warfare from 1792 until 1815. Some came from Napoleon’s own overweening ambition, he seemed impelled to seize more power until stopped.   

For Britain, World War II history was a repeat of the Napoleonic period.  Napoleon, like Hitler, came to dominate the continent but lacked the means to conquer Britain until she found allies that eventually brought him down.  But unlike Adolf Hitler, Napoleon lasted 17 years and left positive changes like the Napoleonic Code as his legacy.  When faced with the inevitability of defeat, Napoleon opted to abdicate rather than punish his own people with Gotterdammerung.

For Britain, the Continent looked very much the same in 1809 as it would in 1941.  She used the same grand strategy--hide behind the Royal Navy and seek allies.  French allies are in light blue.  Prussia, Austria, Russian and Sweden would all eventually fight France in British-backed coalitions.

To become great, Napoleon had to navigate a very different world than Louis had faced.  If Louis had made France a modern state, rather than a confederation of fiefs, the French Revolution had created nationalism.  The French people were willing to fight for ideals, rather than out of professionalism or at a king’s whim.  The French Revolution invented conscription, vastly expanding the manpower pool of potential soldiers, but also requiring massive training and meritocracy to manage them.  And constant warfare honed better leadership.  A military genius could more easily arise under these conditions, and did not need to start out as monarch to become a brilliant leader.  And this Napoleon did.  He was able to control more troops, concentrate them, and apply military force effectively at the correct place and time better than any general of his age.

Part of my hero worship for Napoleon is an American thing.  As American’s we have taken a great deal from Napoleon.  Fresh in our gratitude for France’s role in our independence (of the 7 major wars France fought with England between Louis XIV and the fall of Napoleon, the only one the French ever won was the one that resulted in 13 colonies gaining their independence!) Americans have always had a special interest in things French.  American attention was riveted on the continent starting in 1789.  Was this the spread of American ideals fought for in our revolution taking hold in Europe?  

We even fought the War of 1812 against his principal foe, Britain.  While our national sensibilities reflect this as a victory for heroic American arms, the British never wanted to fight us and regarded the whole affair as a punitive expedition.  We invaded Canada several times to no good effect and the British blockaded coastal cities at will, and burned cities in Chesapeake Bay (The Star-Spangled Banner was written at one place the British were stopped--Fort McHenry prevented a landing, but still endured a heavy shelling by the Royal Navy.  The brand new capital of Washington was not so lucky!) We had gone to war to stop the British from stopping American ships on the high sees and sizing American sailors to man their ships, a practiced called "impressment.".  The War of 1812 ended in 1814 not because of Andrew Jackson's shellacking of a British raid on New Orleans--this occurred after the Treaty of Ghent had been signed in which the British agreed to stop the practice, but before the news could be rushed to North America.  In 1814, with 5 different armies closing in on the borders of France, the Royal Navy's manpower crisis was much less acute and hardly worth the threat to commerce of continued war with us.  Still in the period of 1800 to 1815 and after, hundreds of towns sprung up in the the Western Reserve honoring Napoleon himself (Napoleon Ohio and Michigan; Bonaparte, Iowa) and his battles (Jena, Louisiana; Austerlitz, New York; Marengo, 6 different places, even Waterloo, his final defeat).  The list goes on and on! 

The Bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814.  Fighting the British, but not allied with France.

We took a great deal more than place names, however.  Not the least of which were the writings of Antoine-Henri Jomini, a Swiss national who took service with Napoleon and wrote extensively on military strategy after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars.  His The Art of War was the principle text at the US Military Academy at West Point in the period before the US Civil War.  All of the prominent commanders of that conflict studied Napoleon through Jomini.  Napoleon was so influential that even today, 195 years after Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo, military strategy as taught at West Point has two official atlases, one devoted to the American Wars, and the other exclusively devoted to the campaigns of Napoleon as taught originally to us by Jomini.  

Jomini's book.  Required reading for Robert E Lee and Ulysses S GrantNot so much anymore.

Jomini was somewhat of a martinet, and his didactic style was very rigid.  He was an interesting foil for the far more creative and pragmatic Bonaparte.  Jomini did have a special cachet as a teacher having actually served under Napoleon, however he never rose very far having alienated Napoleon’s powerful chief of staff, Louis Alexandre Berthier.  His battlefield experience was minimal and his theories were overly mathematical.  But Art of War was widely translated and very popular for 50 years after the Napoleonic Wars. 

Jomini was the academic opponent of an even more distinguished military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz.  As a post-Napoleonic military theorist, von Clauswitz suffered the disadvantage of serving in the Russian and Prussian armies.  He was captured by the French in 1808, on the losing side of the Battle of Borodino in 1812, and lost badly at the battle of Ligny just days before Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815.  However, von Clausewitz had the final victory in his war of ideas with Jomini.  Von Clauswitz’s classic On War is still widely read and hardly anyone today has heard of Jomini’s writings.

The Louisiana Purchase almost doubled the size of the US in 1803

American interest in Napoleon was no doubt further piqued by his sale of French Louisiana to The Untied States, another historical event ripe with ironies.  Jefferson was an eloquent advocate of limited government, but needed to create powers never mentioned in the Constitution he helped to frame for the US to make the purchase!  Talk about big government, the feds suddenly owned well over half the land in the newly expanded country!  Lewis and Clark had to be sent to map and survey the new acquisition.  With typical American restraint, they rambled all the way to Oregon, which was not actually in the purchase!  Napoleon’s sale was not just an act of generosity and breathtaking shortsightedness; it was a gesture of expedience.  Napoleon was a motivated seller of all this immensely valuable real estate because he was broke as well as excessively focused on the continent of Europe. 

He was also bitter.  His one serious foray in the New World sent his brother-in-law General Le Clerc and 30,000 French soldiers to Santo Domingo to put down a slave rebellion led by Toussaint L’Ouverture.  Decimated by yellow fever, the entire force was lost, and Le Clerc died of the disease.  Having lost his most profitable colony in the New World, the cash-strapped Napoleon threw up his hands on his undeveloped North American holdings and sold them off.  In a mere 50 years, New Orleans would be a thriving port worth many times the value of Santo Domingo.

Napoleon’s military genius did keep the ideals of the French revolution alive past his death.  But the economic advantages Louis XIV squandered in turning out the French Protestant commercial class doomed France in its long struggle with Britain.  Napoleon may have dismissed Britain as “a nation of shopkeepers”, but the British understood that war with Napoleon in economic terms and out bargained and out produced him.  His failure to understand economics led to the unenforceable Continental System (essentially a boycott of British goods everywhere Napoleon had influence) that was eventually his undoing when he invaded Russia to enforce it.   The peace following the Napoleonic Wars would be called the Pax Britanica and last 99 years.  

The cast on the barricades of Les Mis, a reprise off...

Liberty Leading the People Eugene Delacroix (1830) Louvre
After the defeat at Waterloo, Louis XIV’s descendants in the House of Bourbon were restored to the French throne, but proved indifferent rulers.  In 1848, the French monarchy was abolished for good.  Sort off.  How dead was the Great Chain of Being?  Karl Marx and Frederick Engels published The Communist Manifesto in the same year as workers took to the streets all over Europe in events depicted in Les Miserables, the same ones that left Napoleon III with a hankering for wider streets!  In the modern world, power was derived from the masses, and a common artilleryman who was not even French could upset the divine order and crown himself emperor.  And get a tomb in The Chapel of Louis XIV’s Eglise du Dome (modeled on St. Peters, of course!)  His honors are that of France’s greatest soldier.  He was not, however, buried in The Cathedral of St. Denis, the burial site of many the French monarchs.  

The Coronation of Napoleon I (detail), by Jacques-Louis David (1807)  The ceremony was held in Notre Dame de Paris December 2, 1804, but it took David a little while to execute.  The painting is more than 20x30 feet; larger than my living room!  Is it the first time in history when a man with no first names was painted by someone with three?  More significantly, the Pope looks on as Napoleon anoints himself!  Vive la Revolution!
Napoleon's Tomb:  Napoleon died in British custody on the tiny South Atlantic Island of St Helena in 1821.  After he escaped from Elba in 1815 and returned for the Hundred Days Campaign that ended with the Battle of Waterloo, they weren't taking any chances.  His remains were not repatriated until 1840; a moving event for France called Le Retour des Cendres (Return of the Ashes).  He was placed here in 1861.  As for resting in peace, if there is an afterlife, he is probably conquering it!

We spent an afternoon looking at the French Musee d’Armee, with a rather balanced, but abbreviated exhibit on World War II.  Like the Battle of France itself, the museum’s explanation of the rapid French defeat in 1940 is terse and short on explanation for the rapid collapse.   Following Napoleon’s loss at Waterloo, the fearsome French reputation in battle was lost as well.  The French will lose wars precipitously in 1870 and 1940, before being rescued by allies in 1914 and 1944.  But for all of these defeats, France still has the roughly the borders established by Louis XIV.  In the interim, however, they conquered and lost a huge colonial empire.  Perhaps his spirit could look out across the lovely greensward of his hospital, see the 18th century canon there defending it, and enjoy a peace he did not know in his long and glorious reign as the superstar monarch of his age.

The Museum of the Army has an amazing collection of miniature soldiers detailing their uniforms and equipment through the ages.  These are French soldiers from the time of Louis XIV.  At that time, muskets were very inaccurate.  You loaded and shot in a process that took skilled musketeers minutes to do in drill.  When guns became genuinely accurate, fancy head wear for officers quickly became unfashionable!  By the time of the American Revolution, officers became the targets of sharpshooters.
18th century cannons guard the dry moat in front of L'Hotel des Invalides.  Photo by the author. 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Paris I: Arrival and the Musee Rodin

It is now time for our training in the good life in France, and what luck!  It begins at Roissy!  Lest you think this will be a post-graduate lesson in sexual submission, this is not the Chateau Roissy of Pauline Reage’s scandalous novel, but the city in which Charles De Gaulle Airport is located.  

French customs were not this bad!

We may be expecting a lesson in masochism, but the first thing we learned after a ferocious hazing at Heathrow is that we weren’t going to be body searched at De Gaulle.  In fact, after a casual inquiry into the purpose of our visit, our passports were stamped and we were free to go without the slightest inspection.  At Heathrow we had to wait two and a half hours in the biggest queue I have ever encountered--even the lines for the restrooms at Woodstock were shorter--before our immigration clerk could apologize for Her Royal Majesty’s Government’s very best efforts to prevent us from enjoying our stay in England.  Actually, we weren’t searched at Heathrow either, but we waited a long, long time for a brief but essential stamp--it was an unnecessarily frustrating conclusion to a very long flight.  While we were waiting, we encountered an elderly lady who could barely stand, and it took the collective action of a half dozen of us to get some airport official to bring her a wheel chair.   Amid much muttering that it was “not his job”, we finally got someone to re-purpose himself to find one.  “She should have waited for it at the gate!”  he kept insisting.   We thanked him nicely anyway.  Perhaps he would consider venturing out beyond the borders of “his job” again some day. 

Before leaving for this trip, I must admit that I had never mistaken the “French” as paragons of ‘customer service.’  Perhaps we were treated so much better in De Gaulle Airport because they are very much in the habit of receiving visitors.  France is the top destination in the world for foreign visitation.  With a population of 65 million, they have 80 million visitors a year!  Compare that with the US which has about 310 million citizens, and receives a meager 25 million foreign visitors per year.  Surely France has the edge in this comparison by being surrounded by a populous continent full of potential foreigner visitors, whereas the US occupies a third of its continent and is desperate not to count the tourists from south of the border who are really here looking for work as ‘visitors’.  But the French get hoards of tourists not simply because they have lots of neighbors.  We are among the legions of folks who think this small country – only the size of Texas -- holds some special key to living the good life.  And the French are still getting more visits than neighboring countries in Europe of similar size.  The moral of this story is that if you have to choose between a job at the French or the North Dakotan Conferences and Visitors Bureau, start conjugating those French verbs!

We are staying in the Montparnasse region of Paris in a huge high-rise hotel.  Our view from the 22nd floor covers Isle de la Citè, Montmartre, the Louvre, the Marais, the Jardin de Luxembourg, Hôtel des Invalids, but is cut off from a view of the Eiffel Tower by the nearby offices of Societè Generale.  It is a grand view, but it takes a little getting used to.  Except for a few of the notable exceptions I have just mentioned, the odd skyscraper, the hill of Montmartre, and the Tour Eiffel, Paris has nearly all of its buildings roughly the same height out to the Peripherique, the highway which rings the city out at the limits of its ancient wall.  Baron Haussman’s grand vision is still very much in place, even if it is fraying at the edges due to modernist inselbergs like the Pompidou Center.  The Parisian’s like change, but not too much s’il vous plait.

Paris:  The thick red line is Le Peripherique.  We stayed in 14th Arondissement.
Devil's Tower is a classic inselberg; an island of rock that contrasts with its surroundings
Parisian's don't think the Pompidou Center fits too well in the Marais, either.

I mentioned before that London had missed its chance for a thorough restructuring after the Great Fire due to royal discretion.  But during the reign of Emperor Napoleon III (1848-70), there was no such restraint, and many areas of the city were redesigned with Paris’s characteristic tree-lined boulevards and classic 5-7 story buildings.  Two story high front doors and iron railings on the windows were all the rage.  Napoleons III’s purposes were far from merely aesthetic.  After an alarming spate of revolutions, the Emperor wanted his army’s access to the city unimpeded by easily barricaded streets left over from the Middle Ages.  So only the Marais, and parts of the Left Bank and the Isle de la Cite were left with cobblestones and the close dark medieval feel of the old city. 

Classic Hausmann style from the boulevard named in his honor. Galleries La Faytette is the famous French department store.

However the enchantment of Paris does not depend on dark cobbled streets and half-timbered houses.  We are alone in the city for a couple of days before our traveling companions arrive.  We meet old friends from Ann Arbor who relocated to France twenty years ago and catch up, reeling from the fact that the kid we last saw at age seven is taking his bacc’s and his older brother has already graduated from Oxford!  That certainly makes time appear fleeting no matter how eternal the charm of the city.

After a problem trying to use Le Metro in the jammed Gare Montparnasse, we mostly walk around the newer parts of the Left Bank.  We walk to Les Invalides, then to the Ècole Militare, and have lunch with our friend in a quiet little pedestrian street full of cute shops nearby.  It is remarkably uncrowded and slow moving because of the heat (90F).  The next day our river cruise friends arrive, and we walk Le Jardin de Luxembourg, skipping the Palais there, built for Marie de Medici, but now occupied by the French Senate.  It feels good just to be out experiencing  the breeze under rows of chestnut trees with the Parisian families at the end of the day.

The French do massive topiary on their chestnuts, cutting them into giant boxes.  Here you see the bottoms all regulated to the same height.  'Under the spreading chestnut tree?' Non merci!  Not in Luxembourg Garden.
The next day, we visit Musèe Rodin, which includes a wonderful sculpture garden, including Auguste Rodin’s  fabulous statue of Balzac and his masterwork La Porte de l’Enfer, which was not cast for the first time until after his death.  The Thinker, everyone’s iconic Rodin masterpiece, is really the centerpiece of the Gates of Hell, his deep pondering  meditation on love, vice, evil and mortality; heavy thoughts indeed.  This sculpture is directly inspired by Dante’s The Divine Comedy;  the Thinker has been variously interpreted as the poet himself, and as Adam contemplating his sin.  Rodin’s works dwell on human darkness and ambivalence, and his sculpture shows great wisdom about the physical manifestations of these emotions.  As a man whose existence is defined by his ability to think, he is responsible for the choice he makes – which can bring him to these gates.   Rodin was good friends with Baudelaire (Les Fleurs Du Mal), and he is very much within a French tradition that includes De Sade, De Maupassant, Hugo, Picasso, Camus and Sartre who lived in the city of Light but partook as well of darkness.

 Francois-Auguste-Rene Rodin (1840-1917)
La Porte d'Enfer, Rodin's masterwork
Although Auguste Rodin is probably second only to Michelangelo as the most famous of all sculptors, he faced great struggles for critical acceptance during his career.  He insisted on a more naturalistic style than the reigning contemporary aesthetic of the Academy which was dominated by Neo-Classical ideas, and had trouble getting his works accepted by the Salon, the reigning artistic forum of his day.  However pained he may have been about lack of critical acceptance, Rodin steadfastly refused to compromise his artistic vision.   He nevertheless was very popular among the collecting class, and outside of France, and by 1900, he was solidly commercially successful.  On his death in 1917, he willed his work and studio to the French government.  The modern sculpture garden and museum are at that location now, next to Les Invalides.

Neo-Classical sculpture at it's finest.  Le Salon liked this.
Le Salon did not like this:  Rodin's Balzac

The sculpture garden is definitely the highlight here and most of his famous works are displayed in it.  In early July, the weather is beautiful and we spend most of our time walking in the garden and lingering at the pieces, magnificent in the golden summer afternoon light.  Because of the spacious setting, there is not problem seeing the larger works.  Rodin did many smaller works and some that only exist in clay that were never cast, and it is necessary to go inside for those.  Many of the garden statues are stand-alone versions of the parables of La Porte de l’Enfer.

Inside the Museum itself we explore Rodin’s work and his relationship with Camille Claudel, whose story is very tragic. Claudel came to Rodin at age 18 with considerable talent and a great love of sculpture.  If his depictions of her are given any credence, she was very beautiful, and she showed a great passion for the work beyond merely serving as his model.  It is easy to imagine how profoundly she must have appealed to him.  A gifted sculptress in her own right, she would spend 15 years as his pupil, muse and lover.

Camille Claudel (1864-1943)
One of Rodin's busts of Camille

Their relationship was, like his work, an intense mixture of light and dark.   Claudel was beautiful, passionate, and driven.  She suffered from severe depression which later became so overwhelming she obsessively destroyed her own work.  Although deeply attached to Rodin, she was also very jealous of his longtime companion, Rose Beuret.  She tried very hard to get him to leave Beuret, and was prone to fits of jealous rage over this relationship.  Claudel was also eager for acceptance as a distinct and separate artist and not merely as his student.  As one of his apprentices, she often assisted him in the execution of his work, and given the gender roles prevailing in fin de siècle France, it was hard for her not to feel she was in his shadow.  It did not help that she was 24 years Rodin’s junior. 

Age of Maturity by Camille Claudel.  It is hard notto interpret this bigraphically, with Beuret guiding Rodin away from the imploring Claudel.
There was great push and pull in the relationship between Rodin and Claudel, and he was not one to be easily moved.  Rodin may have deeply loved Claudel, but he never left Beuret, and finally married his longtime companion only a year before he died.  In 1898 he broke off the relationship with his pupil. Three years after Claudel and Rodin parted and at the age of 34, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was eventually diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and became reclusive. Great controversy surrounds this diagnosis and her eventual commitment.  Clearly she was very troubled; this was in this period that she destroyed most of her work, and apparently soured relations with her brother.   In 1913 her brother had her permanently consigned to a mental institution on the Marne River, and then she was moved to Southern France to avoid the advancing Germans in 1914.  Her brother visited only rarely, and rejected all efforts of her doctors to get him agree to her release.  They did not think she was that disturbed.  Rodin never visited her following the hospitalization and when she died in 1943, no one claimed her body.  Rodin’s commercial success greatly overshadowed Claudel’s.  But saddest of all, as an accomplished male artist, he could define his terms and stick to them.  As a woman, she could not, and her Hell was right here on earth.  Her work was exhibited during her lifetime, but it took feminist reinterpretation before a wider acceptance started in the 1960’s.   It shows both Rodin’s influence and her own genius, and both artists were gifted in depicting human conflict so that it was easy to appreciate the tragedy of her lost artistry.  And her loss of control over her own destiny and the moral agency Rodin so grippingly sculpted into Le Penseur!

The Thinker gets around.  Here he contemplates the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

London: Churchill's Bunker and the Blitz

On our last day in London, our hostess has had to return to Beijing, and Chris serves as our guide for a walking tour of the western end of downtown London, including the Millennium Bridge (no, the Death Eaters did not knock it down!); the London Eye, a ‘temporary’ Ferris wheel that was too popular to take down; Big Ben and Parliament, built as the British Empire was approaching its zenith and Westminster Abbey.
The Tomb of Elizabeth Regina I in Westminster Abbey

I could go on just about indefinitely about the Abbey, which hasn’t been a center of monkish life now for a very long time.  It was by far the most impressive site we visited, with everyone from Edward the Confessor, who started building it, to Geoffrey Chaucer, who is buried within not for his seminal literary contributions, but because of his holy work as an ecclesiastical tax collector, and Isaac Newton, buried there.  And those who are not interred (Lord Byron, Longfellow, Winston Churchill, and William Shakespeare) are memorialized.  It is the English pantheon of greats, and we spent all morning examining the tombs.  And here, not far from the charter house where daily instruction of the monks was conducted we found the missing pyx, a large nondescript chest the contents of which are not even displayed. 

Our last stop in London before we must fly off to Paris is also all about the underworld.  It is a bunker underneath Whitehall, the sprawling palace that houses many of the executive functions of the British government.  It was here that Winston Churchill and the War Cabinet would retreat during the London Blitz.  Almost everyone knows about Winston Churchill’s bulldog defiance in the face of Nazi aggression as Britain fought alone against the Germans for nearly a year in 1940-1941.  That has everything to do with our decision to visit this destination on our short list of London sites. Fewer are aware of how this came about.  Many of the key decisions that led to this dramatic confrontation were made long before the battle itself.

Another famous Zeppelin!

The beginning of this story lies in World War I, when military aviation was just getting off the ground, so to speak.  It is London’s dubious distinction to be the recipient of the very first systematic air attacks on a civilian population center.  These were conducted by German zeppelins between 1916 and 1918, and succeeded in killing about 550 civilians, doing an estimated 1.5 million Pounds sterling damage, and diverting British air assets from the skies over France.  Given the technology of the time, zeppelins often couldn’t even reach London, let alone select specific ground targets.  They were so bulky that they could not face stiff headwinds.  When weather conditions permitted, which was seldom, they flew over and dropped their very modest bomb loads over the targeted city.  But the psychological impact of being unable to prevent penetration of home air space by these silent giant phalluses (the largest zeppelins were over 450 feet long) and the arbitrary nature of death from above terrified the London populace. The zeppelins psychological impact greatly exceeded the modest damage they inflicted relative to the magnitude of both countries war efforts, but they presaged a dramatic expansion of attacks directed against civilian populations in World War II.  Eventually, the British used incendiary bullets to attack the zeppelins.  This was a flaming success, given that the Zeppelins were filled with hydrogen gas.  In 1918, the Germans withdrew their surviving airships from strategic bombing missions and started using the first 4-engine bombers to bomb London instead.  After the Hindenburg disaster in Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937, the unsound practice of filling airships with hydrogen was discontinued in favor of helium.  The US Navy used helium filled airships for naval scouting and antisubmarine warfare during World War II.  Now they are used primarily for advertising and aerial television coverage of sporting events.  Strategic bombing by lighter-than-air dirigibles was only a tactical success, but the idea of direct attacks on civilian populations was just getting started.

Between the wars, the Royal Air Force and Home Office conducted studies of the possible impact of strategic bombing, as such air attacks came to be called.  It was theorized by the British, American and Italian air enthusiasts that factory production could be destroyed directly from the air with ‘precision bombing’ and civilian populations terrorized into demanding that their governments surrender by attack from the air alone called ‘terror bombing.’  As a defense, Britain formulated the first civil air defense plan. At the outbreak of World War II, Britain hustled its children out of the big cities into the countryside, developed and installed primitive radar stations to detect incoming raids, set up civilian aircraft spotters and developed communications to centralize and coordinate all the reports so that high performance fighter aircraft could intercept incoming bombers and disrupt the raids. They also implemented plans to use the London subways as shelters in the event of air attack.  The command bunker we are about to visit is a part of those foresighted air defense plans. In America, the US Army Air Corps asked for and received the funding for huge four-engine strategic bombers designed, with typical American simplicity, to carry the war directly to the enemy. They would be big enough to carry massive bomb loads long distances, and well-armed enough to shoot their way through enemy fighters.  In the actual event, all of these innovations would see use in World War II.

The major dissenter from all of this emphasis on strategic bombing was the Luftwaffe.  The German Air Force was designed primarily as a supporting arm for ground operations.  The Germans did not invest in heavy bombers with the kind of payloads, range or armaments to systematically attack enemy production facilities or civilian populations, nor to penetrate far into enemy airspace unescorted by fighter cover to protect them from interception.  So when Poland succumbed surprisingly rapidly to the German blitzkrieg, Germany and Britain found little means to directly grapple with each other through the air.  Britain had too few heavy bombers to launch major raids against Germany, and the Luftwaffe, the German air force had no planes that could reach Britain from Germany. They were conserving their planes for an all out assault on France.  A so-called “phony war” ensued between the autumn of 1939 and the spring campaigning season of 1940, and all sides fumbled about for a peace while preparing for an expected German assault on France.  All hell broke loose on May 10 with the German invasions of Holland and Belgium, and very quickly, France succumbed to the same tactics that had defeated the Poles.  By mid-July, France had surrendered, and Vichy government had been established, and the Germans occupied Norway and all of the west coast of the continent, and faced the strategic problem of how to persuade the British, who Hitler had never desired to fight anyway, to surrender. 

Despite having an air force that was poorly designed for large scale terror bombing and lacking a specific doctrine for terror attacks, the Germans experimented with the technique of bombing civilian targets during the Spanish Civil War.  On April 26, 1937, they hit the Basque town of Guernica, resulting in widespread public outcry, exaggerated claims by casualties by the Basques, and inspiring Pablo Picasso to the painting of the same name.  Guernica was displayed for the first time in July of 1937 at the Spanish pavilion of the Paris World’s Fair and was immediately received as a highly effective use of cubism to reflect the horror of the bombing helpless civilians.   This painting is viewed by many as one of the masterworks of the 20th Century.  A tapestry knock-off hangs today in the United Nations Headquarters in New York.  None of this much deterred the Germans; they would massively bomb Warsaw to hasten the Polish Surrender in October of 1939, and Rotterdam in early May of 1940.  But when they began their air attacks on Britain, they had no plan to bomb civilian targets.

Also on May 10, 1940, the Neville Chamberlain government collapsed, and Winston Churchill, an intransigent critic of previous British policy towards Hitler and fascism, became Prime Minister.  In his first six weeks of office, he faced the imminent possibility that Britain would have to fight alone against Germany.  Among his very first bellicose speeches to the public, he declared “The Battle of France is over and the Battle of Britain about to begin.”  And that is the name that stuck to the very first military campaign in history fought exclusively between aerial forces.  In mid-July, the French signed a separate peace with Germany and Britain found herself standing alone against a German military machine that now seemed fully invincible.  Churchill vowed the Britain “would never surrender.”  Most outside observers had grave doubts.  The Germans had captured French airfields that would allow the Luftwaffe to concentrate within striking range of Britain.
Winston Churchill flashing his signature "V for Victory"

Hitler’s problem in trying to force a British surrender was two-fold.  With no significant navy, the Germans could not invade England unless they could achieve air superiority by driving British aircraft from the skies.  The German air force needed to be able to attack the Royal Navy without the fear of interception by British fighters in order to protect their own vulnerable landing craft and barges that would be carrying their army to British shores and supplying them while they overwhelmed the British Army.  With an air force designed for coordinated ground operations, it was going to be difficult to force a British surrender by strategic bombing alone. The German strategy started by trying to tease the Royal Air Force fighter planes into coming out to stop Luftwaffe attacks on shipping in the North Sea and English Channel.  This failed when the Germans found too few interceptors responding to seriously cripple the RAF.  Unbeknownst to the Germans, the British could use radar to see these raids forming up, and committed their fighters sparingly.  Also, the German dive bombers that had been a holy terror against ground targets during the blitzkrieg on land were slow and clumsy in air-to-air combat.    The German’s then shifted to attacking RAF interceptor air fields directly, trying to destroy fighters on the ground and interfere with their control and maintenance.  This strategy was much more effective, but still seemed too slow given the need to control the skies for an amphibious assault on England.

Winston Churchill was in his element, playing the defiant stalwart, but for all his stirring oratory he had little choice.  It was at this point that he declared that “never in the course of human events had so many owed so much to so few.”  The RAF interceptor pilots were carrying the burden of defending Britain on their backs, often flying three missions a day and men, machines and airfields were wearing out.  At the worst point for Britain in this battle, the RAF was losing 10% of its strength per week.  At this rate, the German goal might actually be achieved.  In fact, both sides thought they were winning because in the heat of combat, pilots tended to overestimate their successes.  The RAF was taking a terrific toll on the Luftwaffe too, and the Germans were losing aircraft and pilots faster than they could replace them.
RAF Spitfire interceptors - some of the 'few' to whom so much was owed.

The Germans had little accurate information on how well they were doing, and their impatience proved their undoing.  Desperate to complete the destruction of the RAF in time to launch their invasion before bad weather precluded a landing, the Germans again switched strategies, and began the Blitz—first during daylight, and then, as losses mounted, they switched to evening bombing of British cities, primarily London.  London was raided for 76 straight nights.  They inflicted damage far beyond the zeppelin attacks of World War I, over 25,000 civilian deaths in London alone, and over a million homes destroyed or damaged.  The psychological strain of hiding in the crowded tube, listening to the fall of the bombs and firing of the anti-aircraft guns, worrying if your home would still be intact after the raids can only be imagined.  After this close attention to London, the Germans expanded attacks so that all British population centers were raided.   Even with almost 45,000 deaths between September 1940 and May of 1941, British war production increased during the period, British morale was unwavering, and Winston Churchill’s radio speeches lost nothing in defiance.  One of the great lessons of World War II is that terror bombing of civilians was relatively  ineffective at damaging war production, or provoking regime change, at least until nuclear weapons were employed.  Later in the war, The RAF and United States Army Air Force would launch several raids that created firestorms in German target cities and resulted in greater devastation and loss of life in a single evening than Germany would inflict during the entire Blitz. These had no noticeable effect on German war production, which didn’t stop increasing until 6 months before the end of the war when Allied armies were almost on the western border of Germany and critical German resource centers had been overrun.
St Paul's Cathedral, a symbol of defiance during the Blitz

This decision to switch to strategic bombing meant that the Germans had lost a close campaign. They simply lacked the tools to gain air superiority over the British coastline. Even with air superiority, it was by no means assured that the German Army could have been landed and supplied in Britain and the British Army defeated, however the decision to bomb London meant that the RAF would never be driven from the skies.  In early October, Hitler scrapped all plans for invading England and turned his attention east to his long awaited confrontation with Soviet Russia.  But nighttime bombing of London would continue throughout the war, much reduced in May of 1941 as the Germans moved most of their bombers east for the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.  However the terror bombing continued at reduced levels in 1941 through 1943 until the Germans’ developed V-weapons and launched attacks on London using these.  V-1 and V-2 cruise missiles resulted in another 12,000 deaths and 35,0000 other casualties.  Even when the Blitz was over, the War Cabinet would need their relatively safe facilities for the duration of the European War.
A replica of a V-1 on its launcher
A V-2 rocket.  The "V" here is from the German word for revenge

The first thing we learned on this tour was just how relative that safety turned out to be.  Although there was a concrete slab over most parts of the bunker ceiling, a good 500lb bomb hit could have taken out the British war cabinet!  The quarters were close, not well ventilated, everyone smoked and a blue haze permeated the deliberations.  Sleeping facilities were provided, but in a crawl space so low that even women had to stoop to negotiate them.  Privacy was at a minimum, and many told stories of embarrassment at meeting colleagues while half clothed and half asleep.  There was great pressure from overwork.  A corps of opinionated alpha personalities meant that discussions were often heated, although the British are proud that Churchill always eventually submitted to the military professionals despite his penchant for dramatic operations on the periphery of the campaigns.  While the post-war impression of the Anglo-American Alliance was initially that of a well-oiled machine, the wartime debates between the US and their British allies were actually quite fractious, and the same is true of the British internal strategic discussions before the US entered the conflict.  The intense pressure of meeting in this quarters for 79 straight nights is readily imagined.
The War Room in Churchill's Bunker

Churchill was a demanding boss who tended to be very hard on his secretaries and the typing pool, and he was melancholic and prone to alcoholism as well. Clearly he was hard to get along with much of the time. In the bunker we could see the transatlantic telephone where he conversed voice-to-voice with Franklin Delano Roosevelt; the intelligence center where Enigma decryptions were sent in from Bletchley Park, and the scrambled telephone lines to various military commands. Most dramatic of all were the maps of every British and American theater of operations in the war, and the one of the Atlantic Ocean had thousands of pin holes that were used for tracking every convoy bringing vital men and material to England, and every submarine attack by the German U-boat campaign to interdict them. My overall impression is how amazing it was that they could coordinate so huge an effort from so small, crowded and claustrophobia-inducing a space while bombs rained down overhead, and how primitive the technology was of the time. Back then, you may be assured that heavy telephones, massive teletype machines, pushpins, and stenography pools were the absolute state of the art. Needless to say, no computers were in evidence except at the ticket office! I have cyber power Winston never dreamed of, and no girls in the steno pool to leave in tears.

The Map Room showing the Atlantic Theater and banks of scrambled phones

Attached to the bunker is a museum devoted to Churchill’s life. I knew a good deal more about his political life and his role as a military leader than about his early history. He was a most indifferent student, and was somewhat starved for parental attention even by the standards of a British upper class that packed children off to boarding school at the first available moment. (No wonder his devoted and rather long-suffering wife Clementine maintained a furnished bedroom and slept with him there in the bunker. She was the only spouse to do this, and he must have greatly appreciated the support.) In his early years he was much more radical than his stalwart defense of empire would suggest. He had a rapacious wit and was prone to speaking his mind to say the very least. An example: “'You are drunk Sir Winston, you are disgustingly drunk. 'Yes, Mrs. Braddock, I am drunk. But you, Mrs. Braddock are ugly, and disgustingly fat. But, tomorrow morning, I, Winston Churchill will be sober.”


Winston's Bedroom in the bunker


He could be no less harsh with himself. His leadership during the period between the invasion of France in 1940 and the end of the war in Europe may have been inspiring and heroic, but Winston was scarcely satisfied. He bemoaned his failure to intervene and politically discredit Adolf Hitler before World War II started. His larger goal, to preserve the British Empire, was already beyond his reach when he took office. The expense of waging two world wars meant that European domination of the developing world was at an end. For all the veneration he received, he was promptly turned out of office before World War II was fully concluded. Although popular as a war leader, the British public, perhaps shaken by the privations of World War II, turned inwards, and did not think he would properly focus on domestic matters. After the chaos and deprivations of war, the British people wanted security. His victorious opponents, the Labour Party, erected the pillars of the modern social welfare state. Such were the deprivations of war that Britain would have to endure rationing until the mid 1950’s, and continued to fill bomb craters into the early 1980’s. Every once in a while, an unexploded bomb turns up, sometimes tragically adding to the casualty rolls of a war that ended 66 years ago.

We ended the day in a little neighborhood pedestrian mall eating Thai food right next to the road when we had the surprising opportunity to witness my worst-ever episode of road rage! A large car pulled up in front of our restaurant, and stopped in the middle of the one-way street. Two guys proceeded to start unloading an unassembled bookcase. Another car drove up behind, and after waiting for 30 seconds, that driver was half way out of his car, yelling obscenities and demanding that they move. After another minute of shouting, two huge guys were engaged in fisticuffs and wrestling right there on the street in front of several restaurants full of diners. I was floored. I have never witnessed such an exchange in America, and our companion noted that they had each looked around first for cameras. In London, there are cameras almost everywhere. But I was amazed to see British fighting when no soccer was involved. We would later see French people stuck waiting for unloading in the single lane streets of many cities without any similar displays. The French may or not be as blood thirsty as my charcuterierre, but they were a great deal more ready to accommodate other drivers… but not pedestrians.  When you set foot in a French street, you had best look both ways and keep your wits about you.

What guidance does all of this provide in looking for the right kind of life? The public is fickle? Freedom must be paid for? Beware the dangers of impatience? Certainly there are many lessons. As we left Britain, I did find myself wondering if I wasn’t looking at America’s future when we are no longer the dominant world power.