It’s All Greek To Me: The Greek Letter Υ

I’m sitting in the Chania Airport for what should be a short hop to Athens, but for some reason – perhaps the Saharan sand in the air combined with rain – our plane is not here, and one flight tracker is suggesting that the delay will be 2 hrs 40 min. *sigh* At least my next flight is not until the evening – tomorrow evening, that is. And, hey, it gives me time to post this!

The most interesting letter in the Greek alphabet is, I think, upsilon. It upper case it looks like the Latin letter Y. Confusingly in lower case it looks like this: υ, or if it is accented, ύ. Why is it interesting? Because it does so much!

  • At first glance it looks like it should be a y sound, and sometimes it does have that sound, as in the Greek name for New York, Νέα Υόρκη. But that is more an accident of transliteration. Υόρκη really should have started with a soft gamma followed by a iota, as Γιόρκ, which is indeed the accepted way of writing the name in Standard Modern Greek of the original York in Yorkshire, England. The common greeting Γεια σας begins with the “yah” sound.
  • The usual pronunciation is with an “ee” sound. We English-speakers pronounce the name of the letter as “up-sígh-lawn”, but the Greeks say “eép-see-lon”. Thus, the word for dog in Greek is σκύλος, pronounced “skee-lohs”.
  • When combined with the letter omicron it creates the “oo” sound, as in φούστα “foosta”, skirt.
  • Here’s where it gets fun. Υ or υ can also sound like “fff”. That god on Olympus, the one with the thunderbolts, married to Hera but with lots of children by others, including Leda the swan? His name is Zeus, and we pronounce it “Zooss” or maybe we dipthong t a bit and elide the “eu” into a fast “eeoo”. However, the Greeks know hims as Ζευς and pronounce it “Zeffs”. Αυτός, αυτή, αυτό – the Greek for he, she, and it – is pronounced “aff-toess”, “aff-tee”, and “aff-toe”. The Greek word for automobile is αυτοκίνητο, “aff-toe-kee-ne-toe”. Australia, where many Greeks have settled, is pronounced “Aff-sta-lee-ah”.
  • Oh, and it can also sound like “vvv”. The Greek word for “tomorrow” is αύριο – “av-ree-oh”. However, if that syllable is accented, the accent is put on the ύ, even though it is functioning more like a consonant, and accents usually go on vowels.

I find all of this fascinating, although it does mean I regularly mispronounce Greek words.

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Lessons from the Great War: The Will to Fight

Canada Troops WWI

Canadian Troops go over the top in World War I

This is my fourth post on Lessons from the Great War.

  • The first raised four questions.
  • The second addressed one of the questions – why did the war end? The answer was that the Allies on the Western Front had finally devised a strategy and tactics that consistently kept the German troops under pressure and pushed them back. There was no breakout, but it was clear that eventually the Germans would run out of men or territory. Meanwhile the Allies had a small but growing army of Americans that would be ready to carry the war into Germany. Confronted with these facys, the military leadership – which in Germany was also the political leadership – became convinced that they had lost the war, and so lost the will to fight. The troops of the Central Powers likewise began to realise that defeat was the likely result, although they never abandoned the battlefield in significant numbers. Knowing this, the various leaderships of the Central Powers asked for an armistice.
  • The third post examined why the war began, and highlighted how the characteristics of individual political and military leaders combined with fear, honour, and national interests.

Why did the war last so long?

Having considered why the war began and how it ended, this post is about why the two sides continued the war after September 1914 despite a stalemate on the Western Front. Until August 1918 there was no decisive movement on the Western Front, just the exchanges of small amounts of territory at a great cost. The answer, simply, is that both sides had the will to fight, and determined that the cost of fighting on did not outweigh the unknown result of suing for peace. In retrospect we know that they did not have the tactics, strategy, and resources to force an end until the beginning of the Hundred Days in August – November 1918, but the leadership did not know that then.

The Germans in September 1914 had not defeated the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force, but they stood almost on French and Belgian land and could adopt a defensive posture and wait for the Allies to attack. As attacks were always more costly in material and lives than defense, they expected the Allies to be ground down, and eventually determine that they would not be able to overcome the German lines, and so blink first. The Allies did attack, again and again through 1915, 1916, and 1917. In 1917 the French Army mutinied, but the generals and politicians successfully managed to keep this secret. As a result the French went on the defensive for a long time. The British took over the weight of the offensive, fighting several massive battles in Belgium, all without achieving any significant result.

The important thing to note in this is that neither side lost the will to fight. Indeed, as the war went on the politicians and generals felt that after the already spent cost in lives that only victory could justify continuing on – negotiating a settlement to bring about peace between equals was no longer acceptable – there had to be a victor and a loser.


A Russian Poster from 1916

Why the war in the east ended in early 1918

In the East it was a somewhat different story. The Russians initially advanced into German Prussia, but were then expelled after the Battle of Tannenberg. In 1915 the joint German-Austro-Hungarian armies drove the Russians out of Russian Poland. In 1916 the Russians had some success with the Brusilov offensive, However, the war was grinding down the various belliegerants in the East, especially Austro-Hungary and Russia, and neither Empire was able to contemplate such an offensive in the future. The cost of the war affected the massive peasantry and the smaller industrial working class with food scarcity and the loss of millions of their young sons. Dissatisfaction with the course of the war and domestic policies resulted in mass demonstrations and the turning of the middle classes and urban elite against the Tsar and the Tsarina, resulting in his abdication and their replacement with a Provisional Government, eventually led by the socialist Alexander Kerensky; this is the first revolution in Russian, known as the February Revolution. Kerensky continued the war against the Central Powers, but his authority was challenged by the Petrograd Soviet, which sought to undermine the hierarchy of the armed forces by creating committees (in Russian, “Soviets”) that would speak on behalf of the military and participate in governing the nation. The Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky conspired to use the Petrograd Soviet as the launching pad for a second revolution. The armed forces had little if any enthusiasm for continuing a war that was perceived to belong to the old regime, and looked for peace. In October 1917 (Old Style Julian Calendar – actually November in the rest of the world) the October Revolution took place, removing the Provisional Government. Soviet-style Bolshevik led governments spread from Petrograd to the rest of the country, and Lenin asked for peace terms. The Germans imposed the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty in which Russia lost Finland, the Baltic States, Belarus, and Ukraine. Finland became independent and the rest was to be controlled by the German Empire.

Looking, then, at the Eastern Front, we see that a belligerent will continue with a war as long as a) the army still exists and is in the field and b) the political leadership believes it is in their interests to continue i) on the defensive until the situation improves, or ii) on the offensive when there is an opportunity of victory, local or ultimate. The Russian army remained in the field, but there was a serious question at home about the cost of the war. When the Provisional Government failed to end the war, a revolution took place which established a government that would make peace, even if the cost in territory was massive.

Germany’s great hope

Peace in the East freed up men and equipment for the East, and the German leadership knew that this presented an opportunity that they would not see again. The British and the French appeared to be exhausted after multiple battles in which the Germans withstood, maintaining the stalemate. However, the USA had entered the war, and while having to build up an army from practically nothing, were well on their way to putting a million men in Europe by the end of 1918 and millions more in 1919. The Germans transferred troops from the now peaceful Eastern borders to the Western Front and launched the Spring Offensive of 1918. At first their numbers overwhelmed the defensive, and there was a real possibility of a breakthrough, but after more than three months of battle the onslaught was stopped by the Allies and their depth of defense. The German’s, depleted and occupying land not easily defended, were forced to fall back on the defensive.

Looking then, at the Western Front, we see that the Germans stayed in the war because they thought until the summer of 1918 that they had a good chance of breaking out and destroying either the British or the French armies, if not both. Having achieved victory in the East and gained vast territories they now wanted to secure those gains. Having had success in the East, they hoped to accomplish the same in the West.


The Allies will to fight

Their were any number of nations involved as the Allies on the Western Front, but the chief were the British Empire and the French Republic. Unlike the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, or the Russian Empire on the Allied side, France and Britain could and did change its political leadership during the war. Thus in Britain Asquith was pushed aside because of a failure of trust (and a marked inability) to lead the government in wartime, and Lloyd George came into power at the head of a coalition government. In France there were some five Prime Ministers during the course of the war, but this kind of revolving door was fairly natural even in times of peace during the Third Republic. Also, both the French and the British changed their military leadership, finally arriving at a unified command under Marshal Foch, which was one factor in the victory in the autumn of 1918. The governments of the two countries, dependent on electoral support in the UK and Britain, were sensitive to the needs of the people, especially concerning food. Lloyd George actually demanded more from the British people than Asquith did by converting the economy to a total war economy, but this just increased his level of popular support. Thus, at no time did the general population or the political leadership seriously consider asking for peace terms. In the armies, as mentioned, significant numbers the French troops mutinied and refused to fight offensive battles, but this only lasted from May 1917 until the German Spring Offensive. By Autumn 1918 they were fully returned to offensive capabilities.

The Allies on the Western Front, then, never saw the cost of continuing the war as outweighing the cost of making peace with the Central Powers. As well, being both colonial empires, they saw nothing but upsides as the Ottoman Empire appeared to collapse. They were aware of the human cost in lives and wounded, and the material costs, but they recognised that if war was to be fought in that era lives would be lost and the government would run up great debts. It was only after the war, as the trauma of battle became generally known, as people felt free to express their anguish at the loss, and the results of “victory” seemed so meagre, that people in Britain began to seriously question the cost that had been expended.


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“The Issue Before Us Is Death” – The Rev’d Chris Hedges



In addition to giving the John Albert Hall lecture at the University of Victoria this past month, the journalist Chris Hedges, preached at Christ Church Cathedral in Victoria, British Columbia, on January 20, 2019. I am told that some people walked out, objecting to the political content of what Hedges said. In particular he denounced a) the corporate state culture as another idol, as nothingness opposed to God; religious fundamentalism as a heresy; and c) the liberal churches for failing to denounce the first two. He quotes Reinhold Niebuhr, Daniel Berrigan, Søren Kierkegaard, Aleksandr Solzenitsyn, the poet Linda Gregg, and scripture, too. As before, you may not agree with what he says, but he nevertheless well is worth listening to. Sermons are not just to reassure us, they are also to unsettle us. Chris Hedges does that.


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Nunc Dimittis: Beyond “Lord, Now Lettest Thou Thy Servant Depart In Peace”

A Sermon preached on the Feast of The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (commonly called Candlemas) at St. Thomas, Kefalas, 11:00 am Feb 3, 2018 (transferred from Feb 2).


Perhaps the most beautiful setting among many beautiful setting of the Nunc Dimittis is the one above, by Geoffrey Burgon, originally composed, not for church, but for the end credits of the 1979 BBC TV adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The words may be familiar to many Anglicans or survivors of Anglican school chapel services.

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen : thy salvation;
Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles : and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son : and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be : world without end. Amen.

How many of us have fond memories of singing this at Evensong? The words are, of course, the 400 year old translation of the Authorised Version (i. e. the King James Version). They ring the changes on memory.


Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, by Gerlach Flicke. Cranmer was the principal author of the Book of Common Prayer in its 1549 and 1552 editions. He would have come out with a third edition, but Queen Mary, a staunch Catholic, became Queen of England in 1553, and had Cranmer deposed, imprisoned, defrocked, tried, and finally in 1556, burned at the stake. They took liturgy seriously in those days.

For those of you not raised in the Anglican Church and have not spent much time in the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, or haven’t attended Choral Evensong, allow me to explain. In the Book of Common Prayer of 1549 (revised in 1552, 1559, 1604, and lastly, in 1662) the authors set up two daily services. Thomas Cranmer, then the Archbishop of Canterbury, condensed the seven monastic services down into two, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. Evening Prayer combined two services, each of which had two canticles or songs from the New Testament. The two canticles are commonly known from their Latin first words, namely, the Magnificat (The Song of Mary), and the Nunc Dimittis (the Song of Simeon), or in crude choral usage, “the Mag and Nunc”.  The Nunc Dimittis is the second of two canticles from Luke, and is part of our gospel reading today, when Jesus is presented by his parents in the Temple and a sacrifice is made by which Mary is made ritually pure in accordance with the Jewish Torah. Now, today in Cathedrals and places where they sing there is a choice of many settings of the Mag and Nunc, including versions of the two by Thomas Tallis, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Herbert Sumsion, Charles Wood, Charles Villiers Stanford, Herbert Howells, and John Tavener The Magnificat, which in the context of the Gospel of Luke is sung by a young, pregnant Mary, is usually upbeat, loud and joyous, capturing the sense of exaltation she is experiencing. The Nunc Dimittis is sung by Simeon, an old man who has probably seen a lot in his life and is ready to die. As a result the musical setting is usually more meditative, moderately paced, frequently building to a climax. It is all very lovely.

But what does it mean?

In the Nunc Dimittis Jesus is presented as the glory of Israel, God’s salvation come to the Temple in Jerusalem, and one who would be a light to the nations of the world. Let’s parse that out.

Jesus is the glory of Israel. Jesus is a Jew, not a Roman, or a Gentile. He is a colonized indigenous person who ultimately is put to death by a great and terrible empire and their native collaborators. In his life and teachings he is the heir of Moses the giver of the Torah and David the king of Judah and Israel. He is the one foretold by Malachi – the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. He is the servant foretold by Isaiah who would be a light to the nations. So, in that sense, he is the Messiah the fullfilment of the Law and the Prophets. And this glory is not seen in power, in the kind of terrible, violent strength held by the Romans, but in servanthood and care, of solidarity with the oppressed and suffering, and of sacrificial love even to the point of death.

He is God’s salvation because, as the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews describes it, in his life, death, and resurrection Jesus is in a cosmic battle with the powerful forces of darkness, described as the devil. He suffers the worst that can be thrown at him, death itself, and yet his sacrificial love is more powerful, and in the moment of grief and despair after death and burial he destroys death and all who are held in slavery by death. As the Christmas carol puts it, “Now we need not fear the grave.”

He is proclaimed by Simeon as the light to the Gentiles – the one through whom the promises God made to Israel are extended to the nations of the world, wild vines to be grafted on to the chosen people.

bcp-eveningThere is another person there who celebrates the coming of Jesus, and that is Anna, who if anything is even older and more pious than Simeon. She was excited as she spoke to those who looked for the redemption of Israel. Why was she excited? The word here, in Hellenistic Greek, is λύτρωσιν – which can mean redemption, as in paying money for something that perhaps has been ransomed, or paying the money to free a slave. In both cases of that meaning it means getting something back which was unjustly taken away, one’s freedom. In modern Greek the noun means “release”, and the verb means “to free”. So the coming of Jesus was good news to those who were looking for freedom, for release from being hostages of their oppressors, from being treated like slaves. Jesus is the glory of Israel, God’s salvation, and a light to the Gentiles, because Jesus is freedom.

So what does that mean for us?

  1. One way to understand this is that we are like Simeon and Anna. When Simeon and Anna see Jesus he is presumably being held by his mother, a scene represented on tens of thousands of icons and paintings presenting the mother and child.  Icons usually present people and occasions that actually happened. Icons of the infant Jesus and his mother Mary are recreations of what Simeon and Anna saw. Like them, we may worship the child in word and deed, in song and action, perhaps by joining with our Orthodox sisters and brothers by venerating an icon.
  2. Another way is to proclaim Jesus as light and salvation, and challenge people to personally accept him as that for them. This is basic evangelism.
  3. But we must go further, I think. A third way to understand it is that we are like Jesus, called to challenge the forces of evil in the world, not by power and violence, but through love and care, even if sacrifice is required. We are called to be lights in this world and speak truth to power, even if the emperors of our day and their collaborators do not like it.

130828b MLKNow, we are not indigenous colonized people, as Jesus and his disciples were. But that does not mean that we can ignore the deeper meaning of the Nunc Dimmits, nor does it allow us to be dismissed, because with one or two exceptions we here are just not that old. We are generally comfortable people, guests here in a foreign land, often with more means than many here or in other parts of the world. We are called to worship, to proclaim Jesus, and to use our privilege, knowledge, and voice to advocate for those who are indigenous, colonized people, for those who are not being heard, for those who dwell in darkness, for those who despair of any succor. It’s not one over the other, it’s the whole deal.

Despite the average age here, God is not done with us, just as I hope each of us is not done with God. God has a mission, and part of that mission is freedom, May we join with Christ in defeating the forces of evil, and making people free.

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Christian Fascism in the USA: Chris Hedges and Authentic Christianity


The good does draw to the good. – Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges is an award-winning American journalist who this past January gave the John Albert Hall lecture at the University of Victoria, in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. The organizers underestimated the interest, as there were people standing in the assigned lecture hall, and there was a video link to three more lecture halls for the overflow.

For fifteen years Hedges covered the Middle East and the war in the former Yugoslavia for the New York Times. He has written books on war, religion in the US, and politics. A quotation from his book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002) was used at the beginning of the The Hurt Locker:

The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.

Hedges is (like me!) a graduate of Harvard Divinity School where he received a Master of Divinity in 1983. He applied to be ordained after graduation in 1983, but apparently being a war correspondent was not considered to be a type of Presbyterian ministry. Eventually the leaders of the denomination changed their minds, and he was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 2014.

Christopher Hedges – Christian Fascism and the Rise of Donald Trump from CSRS on Vimeo.

He has unconventional views. He is an old-fashioned social democrat who describes the United States as a failed democracy and believes that the United Kingdom on its way to being one. He has little time for politicians of either major party in the US who he sees as being in thrall to corporations. He has seen more corrupt politicians in more diverse places than anyone could wish, and yet still has hope for the future, and advocates resistance. He  quotes Dostoevsky to say that  if you want to see the soul of a nation look at its prison system. If Dostoevsky is right, then Hedges knows the soul of the US because he teaches courses at Princeton where half the students are undergraduates and the other half are serving time in prisons. He is grounded in the gospel faith and cannot see why the heresy of the Christian right is not denounced from pulpits and street corners. You may not agree with everything he says, but he is well worth listening to.

The John Albert Hall Lecture is co-sponsored by the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria and the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia. I spent much time as a liaison from the Diocese, sat on a couple of the Centre’s committees, and was a Fellow of the Centre in 2009 and 2012-2014. It is exactly what a a place for inter-disciplinary graduate research should be.

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It’s All Greek to Me: Nikos Kazantzakis & His Novel “Captain Michalis”


When Nikos Kazantzakis was a young boy he would have watched his father and his father’s friends fight in the Cretan rebellions against the Ottoman Turks, who then ruled Crete. As a teenager and a young adult, after Crete became all a sovereign state, nominally under the Ottomans but ruled by the brother of the Greek king, he would have heard the stories told by these old revolutionaries. Kazantzakis’s father was a Καπετάν (“Kapetan”) or a leader of a group of guerillas. Nikos and his family, headed by his father Mihalis, lived in what was then known to the Greeks as Megalo Castro, but is now known as Heraklion or Irakleio. When the rebellions occurred families would have gone up into the hills to the old family village, or even deeper into the wilderness and waited there until the fighting was over – or for the fighting to come to them. In young Kazantzakis’s case the family fled to the island of Naxos and the port of Piraeus, next to Athens. The elder Kanantzakis, a merchant in ordinary life, would have been out with his fighters leading them into opportunistic attacks upon soldiers and officials of the hated Ottomans. The younger Kazantzakis would have grown up amidst periods of tense peace broken by frequent outbreaks of violence, repeated on a large scale over and over until finally, in 1898, freedom was secured.


When Crete was Turkish.

The Orthodox Greeks of Crete rebelled during the 1821-1830 Greek War of Independence. At that time perhaps as much as 45% of the population were followers of Islam, many of them immigrant Arabs and Turks, as well as other ethnicities within the Ottoman Empire. However, a large proportion of them were also converts from Greek Orthodoxy, perhaps out of genuine conviction, but many would have done so in order to escape the tax on non-Muslims and to receive the benefits of being of the same faith as the rulers. The converts continued speaking Greek and were still related to the Greek Orthodox, but the links across the religions was often overwhelmed by the antagonism created by colonialism. In that war of 1821-1830 it is thought that some 21% of the Orthodox population died, whereas, driven into plague-infested cities, as much as 60% of the Muslim population died. The Ottoman rulers executed a number of bishops from the island, just as they hanged the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, reasoning that they had failed in their jobs of keeping their people in line.

Cretan Insurgents 1898

Cretan Insurgents, 1898

Although the southern part of mainland Greece and some of the islands achieved independence after the intervention of the UK and France, Crete remained under the Ottomans. The Orthodox Cretans rebelled again in 1841 and 1858. The Great Rebellion began in 1866 and lasted until 1869. It ended, as usual, with a major effort at “pacification” combined with some concessions. Among the concessions was an agreement that the Greeks of Crete could have some limited self-government. There were smaller revolts in 1878 and 1889, both unsuccessful, and after which the Turks reneged on self-government. In 1895-1896 there was a final rebellion. As it continued into 1897  Britain, France, Italy, Russia, and Austro-Hungary concluded that the Turks needed to be forced to allow the Greek Cretans to rule themselves. Thus they sent their navies and armies to Crete to occupy the major towns. While there a Moslem mob attacked foreigners and troops in Megalo Castro, and they killed the British Consul. The Ottoman armed forces were obliged to leave the island, and as noted above, the Great Powers imposed sovereignty on the island by inviting Prince George of Greece to come over and be the High Commissioner of the Cretan State. In 1913 Crete formally became part of the Kingdom of Greece.


A Parade of British Troops in Candia (i.e. Megalo Castro, or Heraklion) in 1907-1908, when foreign troops remained in Crete to ensure Cretan self-rule and to keep the Ottoman Turks out.

This was the local history that Nikos Kazantzakis grew up with. As a young man he went to Athens to study to be a lawyer, although I do not think he ever practiced as one. He then went to the Sorbonne in France and did a dissertation on Nietzsche. He returned to Greece and spent much of his time translating Greek and French works – mostly philosophy – into Greek. However, he was beginning to think that his real calling was to write, and that in Demotic Greek. After a few short works he spent fourteen years writing a sequel to The Odyssey in over 33,000 lines, more than twice as long as the original.  Published in 1938, it was not well received, perhaps suggesting that no one should try to outdo Homer. He was caught in Athens by World War II, and during the war he began the book Zorba the Greek, which was published in 1946 (English 1952). The immediate success of this led to a flurry of books, including novels about the Greek Civil War in Macedonia in the 1820s (The Fratricides, 1949/1954), the Catastrophe of 1921-23 in Anatolia (Christ Recrucified, 1948/1954), a fictional biography of St. Francis of Assisi (God’s Pauper, 1953), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1942; 1950-1951, 1955). Kazantzakis died in 1957, and is buried in the walls of Heraklion. His home has been recreated in a museum in Heraklion.


Hollywood made this Irish-Mexican actor, Anthony Quinn, the epitome of Greek manhood. You see his image everywhere on Crete, although even his character was not Cretan.

Zorba the Greek was adapted and made into an English-language film by the Greek Cypriot film-maker Michael Cacoyannis in 1964. The film did very well, earning three times its cost and meriting seven Oscar nominations, winning for Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, and Best Art Direction. It was with this movie that Kazantzakis became well known to the English speaking world. In 1988 Martin Scorsese adapted The Last Temptation of Christ into a controversial movie; you’ve never seen John the Baptist and Pontius Pilate portrayed correctly until you’ve seen them done by Harry Dean Stanton and David Bowie, respectively!


Kazantzakis in 1956 in his study in Antibes, France

A novel that has received less attention is Captain Michalis (written 1949-1950, published 1953), or as it is known in North America, Freedom or Death. It tells the story of the leaders of a guerrilla band in the unsuccessful rebellion of 1889. Set mostly in Megalo Castro and the hill villages around it, it tells the story from multiple perspectives, including that of Nuri Bey, the Muslim blood brother of Captain Michalis, and Pasha Effendi, the governor of Crete. Chapter 5 is a meandering through Megalo Castro with several dozen characters engaging in conversation, prayer, meals and other ordinary activities, as if in the calm before the storm. Perhaps influenced by James’s Ulysses, it shows how the Muslims and Christians overlapped, and how the tension was sometimes undone by good will. The main character, the Captain himself, is undoubtedly brave, but also monstrous in his unfeeling relations to his family, his need to drink alcohol, his intense desire for honour, and his inability to feel remorse for killing and murdering, even when the victim was accidental. I think that Kazantzakis wanted to deconstruct what “heroism” was, an ideal he would have received from his father and still lives in Crete and other parts of Greece – this combination of honour and horror. There is a strong theme of Cretan “machismo” throughout the book that would make it unpalatable to 21st century tastes, but I do not think Kazantzakis presents it uncritically – rather he shows it in all its brutal ugliness. Women’s voices are heard as well, in the Captain’s wife and daughter, in the mistress of Nuri Bey, and the women of the villages; however, it was a deeply patriarchal culture, and the women are overwhelmed by the needs of the patriarchs. There is also an aspect of folk tales and magical realism, as Stamatis Philippides noted in an article from 1997.

I am told by one of my neighbours that the book is hard to read, because large parts of it are in Cretan dialect (he grew up in Macedonia). I of course had to read it in an English translation (in a copy I bought in Russell’s, in Victoria, BC, Canada), but I look forward to having enough Greek that I can at least read a part of it. The translation I read, by A. N. Doolaard, had some obvious errors in it – the local clergy, for example, are referred to as “Pope”, which is a bit bizarre; the word should have been transliterated as “Pa-pass” or just translated as “Father”or “priest”. Some academic reviews also noted misunderstandings of the original Greek. Nevertheless, Kazantzakis’s genius shines through, despite any infelicities of the translator. It’s a good if challenging read. Despite some misreadings by some it is not an exaltation of Cretan heroism but a narrative analysis of it – its power, and its failings. In the end the Captain dies pointlessly. The reader knows from the other side of 1898 that this is the penultimate rebellion, but one of the least remembered among many. Michalis dies as much for his own honour as for the freedom of Crete, and to join with those who died violent deaths in the decades before. His type became unnecessary in Crete after 1898, and Kazantzakis seems to say, “We shall not see his like again. Amen.”

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The Origins of the First World War

I have these three books in my bookshelf. They each discuss the origins of the First World War. They do not agree.

The oldest is The World Crisis by Winston Churchill, and it has my grandfather’s name in it indicating that he bought it in 1931, the year it was published. Churchill has few doubts about who caused the war – the Austro-Hungarian Empire, for the unreasonable ultimatum to Serbia following the assassination in Sarajevo of the heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and the German Reich of Kaiser Wilhem, which abandoned the prudence of Bismarck in 1890 and provoked the world powers by an incresaing its already militarized nation and backing his allies in Vienna and Budapest. Churchill saw nothing inevitable to the war despite preparations on all sides. He believes that reason and diplomacy could have prevented the catastrophe, but the leaders of the German-speaking empires in Central Europe expected war, prepared for war, and pretty much welcomed it when it came. In comparison, the Russian Empire entered because of honour – they felt obliged to support their south Slavic counsins in Serbia – and of fear – that the more industrially advanced Germans and Austro-Hungarians sought to expand their territory at the expense of Russia, which was still largely rural and uneducated. The French also entered the war because of fear and honour – fear that they would be defeated as they were in 1870, but also because it presented an opportunity to regain Alsace-Lorraine and the lost honour of 44 years before. The British entered the war because they could not countenance a Europe dominated by a Germany even stronger than it was in 1870, and challenging British supremacy on the seas; the invasion of Belgium and an entente with France gave the UK government a cause to go to war. According to Churchill the war was caused by the Kaiser and the German Reich that supported him.


From the excellent article at Vox: “40 maps that explain World War I

Barbara Tuchman published The Guns of August in 1962 (also known as August 1914, the name by which my grandfather bought it). Tuchman, like Churchill, ascribes blame, and to do so carefully lays out the major decisions made by Russians, Germans, French, and British political and military leaders in order to explain how the war became a long one fought in trenches. She faults all sides equally for making errors in judgment. The German military planners were faulted for the Schlieffen Plan, in particular their assumption that they could invade neutral Belgium without any consequences. French military planners were faulted for their planning that put a premium on attack, and did not consider the devastating power of new artillery and machine guns. The Russians were faulted for fighting a war that they they were delusional about winning, given their strategic and technological backwardness. The British were faulted for not having made it plain to the Germans that they would support France in any conflict with Germany. Neither side was flexible in tactics or strategy, and so none of them could adapt well to unforeseen results. Both sides placed an emphasis on morale, but ultimately the major battles of the first few months were all determined by a concentration of soldiers and materiel. Both sides expected a short war with a single decisive battle, after which all would make peace; instead, after the “Miracle of the Marne” and the “Race to the Sea”, stalemate ensued, which was not broken until August 1918. Tuchman described the way in which politicians and generals make decisions to go to war without really understanding the cost. While November 1918 yielded victors and losers, the number of deaths of soldiers and civilians that it took to get there was unprecedented, and many after the war called into question the cost. Tuchman did not find any single villain, so much as describe a concert of folly.


These guys who went to war all knew each other. Winston Churchill (then President of the Board of Trade in the UK Liberal Cabinet) with Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1909.

Margaret MacMillan is not so sweeping with blame as Tuchman or so definitive as Churchill. In her brilliant The War That Ended The Peace: The Road to 1914 she goes further back than Tuchman to examine the attitudes of the politicians and military prior to the outbreak. She writes at the very end:

And if we want to point fingers from the twenty-first century we can accuse those who took Europe into war of two things. First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war. There are always choices.

There are other approaches to understanding the origins of the war.

Marxists believed that the war was the inevitable result of capitalism. Lenin, in his 1917 book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism considered the Great War to be the result of a late stage of capitalism. He believed that the proletariat would rise up in revolution and turn the war between imperialist powers into a civil war between classes. In the October Revolution of November 1917 he successfully carried this out in Russia. Things seemed to be moving along like clockwork in Germany and Hungary with seizure of power in Bavaria and Hungary by radical left-wing groups, but in the end the former soldiers of the German Reich, organized into Freikorps, ended such possibilities of communism. Lenin was wrong, of course. While the colonialism side of imperialism could be quite enriching, the all-out war of 1914-18 impoverished and destroyed the economies of the different belligerents. The reasons they went to war may have had the desire for territory behind much of it, but it ignored the non-economic rationale of the Allies and Central Powers. As it turned out, history was not determined by the struggle of classes after all. Countries devastated by the Great War turned not to communist revolt but to varieties of anti-democratic right-wing racist nationalism. Despite the obviousness of this, Marxist reductionism still holds much sway in certain places.

Niall Ferguson in The Pity of War (1998) (which I think I read as a library loan) goes further, and blames the long war on Britain. Had it not stepped in to defend its honour with Belgium and to assist France the war would have ended quickly with a German victory. Then something like the European Union would have emerged earlier, World War II would have been avoided, and the UK would not have been bankrupted. The cause of the Great War – the war we know, the one with trenches – was a massive miscalculation by the Liberal government led by Asquith.

I have not read it (yet), but Prof. Sean McMeekin of Bard College just outside New York City argued that it was really the fault of the Russians in his 2010 book The Russian Origins of the First World War.

While no longer acceptable, many Germans after the Great War, and especially after the imposition of the Versailles Treaty upon them, blamed France for having surrounded the Reich with the intention of gaining Alsace-Lorraine back. While this undoubtedly played a factor in the haste with which France went to war, the reality is that prior decisions of Germany – to back Austro-Hungary in its war against Serbia, encouraged the Russians to embark on their war against the two Central Powers.

You may be surprised to learn that no one has yet written a book blaming Canada for the First World War, but it may happen yet.

A little over twenty years ago the history professor and expert on Ancient Greece Donald Kagan published his masterful On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace. Going back to Thucydides (460 – 400 BCE) and his History of the Peloponnesian War, Kagan points out that the ancient Greek historian has someone state close to the beginning, “Why do people go to war? Out of fear, honor, and interest.” Kagan examines five different wars, and the First World War is one of them.

Kagan believes that honour played a larger role in the First World War than is usually thought. In the 1870s and 1880s the first chancellor of the German Empire Otto von Bismarck sought to establish peaceful relationships after unifying Germany and fighting three short wars against Denmark, Austro-Hungary, and France. Kaiser Wilhelm pushed Bismark and that policy aside and sought to expand the military, including the German Navy. This alarmed the British, who dominated the high seas with the Royal Navy, and so the two nations entered into an arms race. The French, resentful after the defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, sought to regain Alsace-Lorraine and French honour. The Russians, with long memories, feared another invasion from the west, and the growing German Army disturbed them. The French and the Russians entered into an alliance against the Germans, which only convinced Kaiser Wilhelm that the nations around him were ganging up on him. As well, the Russians sought some way of supporting their fellow Slavs and Orthodox peoples in Serbia. The Italians were bumping up against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which ruled the Italian speaking areas of Trieste and was expanding into the Balkans against a weakened Ottoman Empire; this led them up against Serbia, which sought to expand its territory to include Serbs and Croats now under the rule of Vienna. Greece had just fought two wars, also significantly expanding its territory to the loss of the Ottomans, and saw little reason to stop; this brought them into competition with Albania and Bulgaria.

Kagan argues that the over-riding interest of all the nations was to maintain peace, perhaps an obvious point in retrospect knowing what the cost of the war was. Millions died. France was bled dry, the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, Russia was hit with two revolutions, and the German Reich fell. For Russia, Greece, and Turkey the war did not really end for several years, and at the cost of millions more dead and millions displaced. The various nations were all too willing to go to war, and the leaders and the people – especially the people – suffered for it. Having failed to preserve peace in 1914 they failed to establish a strong peace afterwards. The United States sought to withdraw into isolation, Britain and France sought to expand their power in the Middle East, and the Soviet Union considered how to export revolution. In Germany the myth of “the stab in the back” arose and fueled a turn to the right wing, which promised to re-establish the honour of Germany by military means and re-determine the boundaries of Europe. After the Second World War the United States and its Allies ensured that this did not happen again.

It may be obvious from the review of the books above where I stand on some of these issues. Regardless of what I think, the causes of the Great War will be debated for many years to come. However, the various historians have revealed how complex these things can be. It is one thing to make a timetable after the fact and to see how certain decisions led to historic results, it is another to understand the motivations and thinking behind them. One thing seems clear to me – there was never anything inevitable about what happened. As Margaret MacMillan reminds us, “There are always choices.”

So what lessons might be learned now, some one hundred years after these momentous events? That will be the topic of another post.

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