Hail Caesar! Three Books About Tyranny

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century

Heavily marketed, The Storm Before the Storm is a book that I desperately wanted to like. This work of popular history about the end of the Roman Republic has so many parallels to our time – at least according to the sales copy – but the book itself is a tedious examination of the political issues before Rome became an empire. Praetors, consuls and legates come and go in a swirl of assemblies, riots and wars, a mix of similar-sounding names and titles adding to the confusion.

Rome wasn’t a democracy, but a republic, ruled by a narrow set of wealthy families jockeying for political power in a country grown wealthy from foreign conquest. The original 1%, they governed through a series of norms and traditions that became degraded with wealth and privilege. Citizenship was narrowly construed (even Italians outside Rome couldn’t be citizens) and the masses restless, seeking cheap grain for the cities and land for ex-soldiers. Failure to resolve these contradictions, and defend their sacred institutions, led to Caesar and the Roman Imperium.

Left unsatisfied by The Storm Before the Storm, when I saw Dictator sitting on a shelf at the beautiful new West End Library, I had to pick it up. This novel by Robert Harris, the last in a trilogy about ancient Rome, does a far better job at explaining Roman politics and the end of the Republic. His Cicero is a tragic, deeply flawed figure in a brutal age. The novel starts out beautifully, with Cicero on the run from his enemies, lucky to escape into exile. He’s lost everything. But, through his genius and dogged work, he regains his property, his stature and his reputation.

Caesar is a dangerous man who indulges Cicero – to a point. The orator, however, doesn’t know when to shut up, even after being warned by Caesar’s generals. Is this due to vanity or a genuine commitment to democratic institutions?

The most practical guide to our times is On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Early in this spare tome, Timothy Snyder, who has written extensively about the Nazi regime, makes this observation:

The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands.

Germany was a democracy, just like us, yet they fell into catastrophe. Why? It’s not just “good men doing nothing”, it’s the systematic corruption of an entire society – the media, courts, even truth itself. On Tyranny is a guide to defending democratic institutions, and this slim little book provides practical advice on how to do so, drawn from the dark history of central Europe.

Are we Rome? Are we Germany? The founders of this country studied history, so as not to repeat the errors of the past. We would do so too, if we are to prevent tyranny in our time.

James Buchanan – Worst President Ever?

Buchanan Memorial

Covered in green pollen and tucked in a corner of Meridian Hill Park, it’s a monument that attracts little attention. Dog walkers and runners pass by the bronze sculpture without a second glance. A seated figure, looking down, on a marble plinth.

It’s James Buchanan, the worst President ever, according to a new biography by Robert Strauss.

If you remember Buchanan at all, it’s for doing nothing as Southern states seceded from the union after Lincoln’s election. But you don’t become the worst President though sins of omission; you become the worst by making a series of terrible decisions. In four short years, Buchanan:

  • Lobbied for the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court, believing that it would settle the issue of slavery. Instead, it spread the bacillus of this poison to the North, whose citizens now found themselves legally obligated to help slavers.
  • Failed to intervene during the Panic of 1857, an economic crash caused by Dred Scott, for it unsettled the issue of whether future states would be slave or free. Emigration to the west dropped, railroads failed and millions went broke.
  • Made a martyr out of John Brown by handing him over to Virginia to hang for his role in the Harpers Ferry raid.
  • Allowed Southern states to seize federal forts and armories after the election of Lincoln, arguing that while states had no right to secede from the Union he had no right to use force against them.

After the Civil War, Buchanan was condemned as a “doughface”, a Northerner with Southern sympathies. His photo hung in stores with “TRAITOR” written under it. In Worst. President. Ever., there’s a story, probably apocryphal, of Buchanan fretting in his Pennsylvania estate as Lee’s armies approached, finally realizing his misdeeds.

Buchanan has his defenders, however. John Updike examined the life of his fellow Pennsylvanian in Memories of the Ford Administration, a novel mixing fact and fiction, arguing that Buchanan and the malaise-filled 1970s were both misunderstood.

The life of Buchanan becomes relevant only when America faces a leadership crisis. Then, our thoughts turn back to history, to the worst possible outcome. By this point in his term, Buchanan had ushered in the Dred Scott decision, a very lawyerly interpretation of the Constitution that united anti-slavery forces. A deal was no longer possible. As Lincoln said in 1858:

A house divided against itself cannot stand.

The Buchanan Memorial remains, forgotten, overgrown, a convenient sleeping spot for the homeless. Worst President Ever, an ignominious title for James Buchanan and one that may soon be taken from him.

The War That Ended Peace

the war that ended peaceIt was the war they said couldn’t happen. Europe had enjoyed a century of peace. Commerce between the nations was exploding thanks to new inventions and ways of doing business. Knit together by trade, communications and royal marriages, a war in Europe was unthinkable.

Moreover, the leaders of the European powers knew that a general war would lead to the end of their empires. Russia had barely survived its defeat by the Japanese in 1905. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a seething cauldron of nationalities desiring freedom. Turkey was the sick man of Europe, with France and England eying its territory. The German Kaiser feared a revolt against his rule as much as he did the coming war, while the British felt necessary to fight to maintain their global empire.

In the years leading up to 1914, the Europeans had muddled through crisis after crisis, deftly avoiding a general conflagration. Yet, following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the continent slowly slid into the war that would consume them all.

This vital period is the subject of Margaret Macmillan’s The War That Ended Peace. She deftly examines the motivations of the Great Powers, as well as the men that led them. War was not inevitable, but the result of mistakes and miscalculations. Europe could have remained at peace, for there was a burgeoning anti-war movement in France and other countries, as well as the first stirrings of international labor. With her profiles of the people and nations of the period, she is careful not to assign blame, writing sympathetically from the perspective of the combatants, whose aims and beliefs were not that different from our own. This was a war in which everyone could claim to be acting in self-defense. Austria-Hungary went to war to punish the Serbs, Russia mobilized to protect Serbia, and Germany felt compelled to quickly defeat France before it would be overwhelmed by the Tsar’s troops.

One hundred years ago, the center of world civilization consumed itself in an unnecessary war. The War That Ended Peace should be required reading for today’s leaders, who glibly assure us that everything will remain as it’s always been. History has shown us the folly of this thinking.