Category Archives: European History

Churchill, Stalin, and FDR

I’ve been on a WWII and Winston Churchill binge lately, which, God willing, should continue.  I have another Churchill biography to read and a lecture series on the British Empire and Commonwealth 1901-present.  What a wonderful life I lead!  Here are a couple of things that have become clear to me:

1)  Churchill, while being quite extraordinary, and while I relate to him quite a bit, was also obnoxiously imperialistic.  Bear in mind, a huge reason for his unpopularity in the decade preceding WWII was his condemnation of Ghandhi and his desire to hang on to India as an imperial possession no matter what.  Thus, Churchill’s goal in WWII was to a) win the war and b) preserve the British Empire and imperial power.  This annoyed FDR, and allowed FDR to kinda lump him in with Hitler and Stalin.  In FDR’s mind, they were all obnoxiously old school in just wanting to take other countries over–an impulsive old world tendency.

2) FDR, however, totally screwed up in judging Stalin, and Churchill more or less read Stalin right.  For instance, Churchill was very aware of Stalin’s post war ambitions of controlling half of Europe.  This is why Churchill wanted to come up through the Greece, the Balkans, and Italy, and attack the soft underbelly of the Germans, instead of landing on the well defended beaches of Normandy.  This different tack would have served two purposes: it would open up the second front that the Russians badly needed, and it would stop the Russians from making an enormous land grab in Eastern Europe.  This makes sense to me.  If I could, I would want to help the Russians defeat Germany, but not help them conquer other nations.  Obviously, Stalin wanted the Normandy invasion.  This is how things stood at the beginning of the Tehran Conference, the first time all three men would meet together.  FDR, who seems to have possessed the power to swing the decision either way, chose to give everything to Stalin, in the hopes that such extravagance would woo him over.  Not only would America and Great Britain commit primarily to Operation Overlord (the Normandy invasion), they would also pull troops away from the wonderfully successful campaign in Italy, troops that could have peeled north and east from Trieste, as one American 3-star general wanted, and how Churchill wished.  Instead, these troops from the Italian campaign would concurrently invade southern France (the Riviera).  In this way, and in many others, FDR acquiesced to Stalin in hopes of wooing him.  The only time that I know of that FDR stands up to Stalin with some harsh words is when, during the final stages of the war as both armies were squeezing Hitler, one German general sent feelers to the British and American armies as a precursur to surrender.  Stalin actually accused the British and Americans of looking to sign an immediate peace treaty so that the Germans could turn, halt, and reverse the Soviet advance.  In retrospect, maybe that was not a bad idea : ) but yeah…that was not the case at all.

3)  What makes FDR’s read on Stalin all the more unacceptable is that Stalin could have just as easily come into the war on the side of Germany than against it.  Thank God Hitler made an enormous tactical error and invaded in June 1941.  Before that invasion, Hitler and Stalin had been carving up Europe.  First, they split Poland.  Then Russia attacks Finland unprovoked (BTW, this campaign went awfully for the Soviets.  They only took a little territory, killed 70,000 while losing 330,000 of their own.  Also, Stalin got so mad he killed all the Generals involved.  Hitler later commented to an aide that it is wonderful to fight an enemy who kills his own generals for you.  It reminds me when Athens, in the last stages of the Peloponnesian War, had 10 of its admirals executed for not burying the dead quickly enough, and they had even won the battle!)  Then Stalin took Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, and two provinces in northern Romania.  The point is this: Stalin was just as ruthless, merciless, imperialistic, and aggressive as Hitler was.  FDR was dumb to give stuff away to him.

4) Sometimes we forget this, but only six months after the Germans invaded the Russians, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.  I think this highlights the point that Great Britain was quite alone for a long time and deserve, in my mind at least, most of the credit for stopping Hitler from taking over the world.  They entered the war after giving the Germans an ultimatum after their expansion into Poland.  In other words, they chose to fight because they thought it was the right thing to do.  America, along with Russia, fought because they were attacked first.  Also, thank goodness Japan attacked Pearl Harbor!  Of course, the event was horrible, but it did finally push America into a war that it would have had to fight, sooner or later, and they got in while it was still winnable.

5) Having said all that, I do kinda wish that FDR would have lived for the post-war reconstruction and international realignment.  Even if he did not understand Stalin, he seemed to realize he was wrong towards the end, and FDR was brilliant.  In some ways, it feels like when we lost Lincoln after the War of Northern Aggression (yup!  I said it).  However, though I need to study it further, I think Truman would have been more up to the job than FDR, even if FDR was healthy.  But that, as opposed to everything that I say above, is just conjecture.

Thanks for reading!  Next time I will have some thoughts on Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.  That is a fantastic book.

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Venetian Money Stuff

Today, money is super easy to use in part because the money itself has no value.  It’s just paper and copper or nickel.  For most of human history, including Venetian history, money had intrinsic value and this made transactions very annoying.  Merchants had to be experts in weighing and measuring gold and silver, they had to understand alloys, and they had to carry around apparatus for doing these tests, and they had to perform them at every transaction.  In fact, assessing the value and worth of money was such an art that a whole industry cropped around this area of expertise: they were the moneychangers.  They would take a look at what you got and let you know what you could get with it.  They could also change what you had into something that might be locally more acceptable.  In Venice, many merchants were also moneychangers as a side business.

Most cities had moneychangers, but the Venetians took it further.  They started to leave their money with the moneychanger and only come back and get some when they needed it, thus inventing deposit banking (they beat Florence to it).  The Venetians did not know it at the time, but deposit banking, when you do not need returned the exact same gold and silver you put in, is very important, and continues being important, for economic progress as it keeps capital working in the economy.  Instead of thousands of dollars sitting under your mattress doing nothing, it is funding an expedition or something.

Then the Venetians found it much more convenient to settle transactions by what I am calling the mediaeval debit card, that is simply walking up the moneychanger with your business associate and say, “take 94 duckets out of my account and give it to him.”  In fact, since many of them knew each other so well, they started just to write out their agreements on slips of paper and giving them to each other (checks).  In these two ways they invented moneyless transactions where nothing changed hands.  Instead, a moneychanger scribbled something in his ledger and that was that.  By the way, the main bench on which the Venice’s moneychangers sat was called the “Banka,” which of course gave us the word “bank.”

Being part of the mediaeval Catholic world, Venetians were not allowed to charge each other interest on loans.  This is a problem for merchants, as they need large loans with which to start buying low.  Therefore, merchants would look for investors who would front the money.  In other parts of the world, investors expected 20% interest on their loans regardless of profit.  In Venice, investors expected a large portion of profits only, usually 75%.  Of course, it’s not smart to put all your money into one basket, so these investors started diversifying by putting some money in a bunch of different trading expeditions.  In other words, they bought and sold shares.  Stocks and the stock market started with Venetian merchant shipping.  One wealthy merchant died in the 15th century with shares in 132 different voyages.

The Venetians made many other important advancements in finance, including how to regulate banks by requiring them to keep a certain percentage of their money in reserve.  They also invented double entry bookkeeping, wherein they record all expenditures and revenue, requiring books to be constantly balanced.   You can see how this would make business more fraud resistant.  Without this type of bookkeeping, modern finance would be impossible.  Complex businesses would not work.  Double entry bookkeeping also works best with arabic numerals, and the Venetians were one of the first Europeans to import them.   Finally, they started selling liability insurance for merchants, a first since ancient times.

I was very much suprised to find Venice’s ongoing legacy in the world of finance.  The history of the city has been fascinating to study.  But I’m moving on now.  I am currently reading a book about Ayn Rand called Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller.  Heller’s approach is very even, both praising and criticizing.  I tried to read Atlas Shrugged a few months ago and found it yawn inducing.  This is better.  It’s history, biography, and I get all the ideas without having to wade through her fiction (or non-fiction for that matter).


Weird Republicanism

In 1229, there was a fierce rivalry between two powerful Venetian families, both of whom were vying for the office of the Doge, the chief officer in the Venetian state.  The 40-man committee that was supposed to elect the Doge was split down the middle.  This factionalism caused problems, and a big fear was that one family would monopolize the Dogeship.  As Italian cities like Florence, Pisa, etc., turned to monarchy, the Venetians were worried that they might be next.  To ensure that didn’t happen, they made this system:

  1. The Great Council, with several hundred members, would cast lots that would choose 30 men from among them.
  2. Those 30 would be reduced by casting lots to 9.
  3. Those 9, as a unanimous group, would name 40 men.
  4. Those 40 would be reduced by lot to 12 men.
  5. Those 12 would name another 25 men.
  6. Those 25 would be reduced to 9 men.
  7. Those 9 would name 45 men.
  8. Those 45 would be reduced by lot to 11.
  9. Those 11 would choose 41 men.
  10. Then, those 41 would elect the next head of state.

This was not some strange system that some eccentric political scientist devised.  That in itself would be fascinating.  This was the way that the biggest Republic in the world at that time, and the longest lived, chose their head of state for centuries.

I wonder what would happen if we used this system today in electing our president.  I wonder if it would improve the quality of our leaders and the character our national dialogue.

History is fascinating.


The Unique City

I thought David Rakoff’s book, Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, the Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal live Oil, and Other First World Problems, was going to make fun of these sorts of problems and provide insight.  Instead, he was serious about these meaningless difficulties.  It was a major disappointment for such a sweet title.

So, for entertainment and diversion, in the midst of this crazy adrenaline-filled week, I turned to a 14-lecture course on the History of Venice by Dr. Thomas Madden at Saint Louis University.  I enjoyed it greatly.  Kagan’s History of Ancient Greece is much better (you can find it on itunesU), but I think it is only because Venetian history is just so absurdly long, over 1,000 years.  It’s hard to create the magic of narrative when the story is so long and has so many players.

Venice is a unique city.  It did not exist during Roman times.  Nobody lived out on these tiny little low-lying sandy and marshy islands at the very northern tip of the Adriatic.  People started fleeing to them for safety as mainland Italy became less and less stable and it became a collection point for refugees from the Roman Empire.  As such, it kept a very close relationship to the Byzantines for hundreds of years, and it always associated itself, and rightly so, with the Roman legacy.

Venice’s location also set it apart from the mainland (more than literally).  While Europe adopted the land-based feudal system, Venice’s income was entirely based on the sea trade.  Ok.  They did make salt, and a few other things, but they were traders and not farmers.  In fact, their merchant-based economy did much to pave the way for modern finance (maybe I’ll discuss that in a different post).  Like Athens of ancient times, they enjoyed a unique combination of dominance at sea and relative weakness on land (if only Athens had enjoyed Venice’s supremely defensible marine location maybe the Pellopenesian War would have gone differently).

Unlike the other mostly monarchical governments of Europe, Venice’s government was originally a democracy in which the people voluntarily gave up their claims to a group of wise old men who in turn created an oligarchical republic.  Newly wealthy families could join the oligarchy, and this flexibility made it unlikely that the newly rich would agitate the populous in an attempt to gain political power.  The result was an incredibly stable republic in which everyone was subject to the rule of law, and this was good for business.

For centuries Venice enjoyed great privilege in trading with the Byzantines, and their seafaring abilities–they all grew up on the water–made them exceptional sailors for business and war.  However, with the opening up of the Atlantic passes to India by going around Africa and the discovery of America, Venetian trade became less important.  They were also slow to put cannons on ships, lose their rowers, and they never really got the hang of it.  They were incredible ship-builders during the Middle Ages.  In fact, they were the ones to really invent the assembly line, the factory (their “Arsenal” it was called), and interchangeable parts.  They would float hulls of boats down the docks to different stations.  At times, one third of the city worked at the boatyard and they could pump out a ship a day.  In 1450 they had about 3,000 ships on the water.  But eventually they couldn’t keep up with the French, English, or Germans.

Ironically, Napoleon, the product of the French Revolution, who thought himself the great liberator of Europe, the spreader of liberal ideas like equality under the law and republicanism, was actually the one to destroy the oldest republic in Europe, one which had always prosecuted those high-born and low-born.  In a sad series of events, Venice tried to placate Napoleon, but ultimately, Napoleon just wanted Venice.  He arrayed his cannons along the shore and was about to bombard the city.  Finally, technology had made obsolete Venice’s defense: the sea.  So, in an emotional meeting of the Great Council on May 12, 1797, after 1100 years of fairly even-handed and non-partisan self-rule, the last holdouts of the Roman Empire voted to voluntarily give up their republic and hand themselves over to French rule.

History makes me cry.