Category Archives: First World War

Pitiless monster

Had it not been, writes Dalrymple,

for the cataclysmic First World War, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov would have remained as he should have remained: an obscure, exiled scribbler of dull, intolerant, and hate-filled political pamphlets, with no chance to put his fathomless misanthropy into practice.

He adds:

No man was ever more a stranger to pity.

War and dysentery


‘The narrator states that by 1918, war had come to seem so perpetual, so inescapable a fact of existence, that it was just another cause of death, “like cancer or tuberculosis or influenza or dysentery”. As to the latter, the German soldiers were so accustomed to it by the end of the war that they thought it was not worth pulling up their trousers; and the shirt-tails of their Russian prisoners of war were stained with blood.’

Triumph of the antinomians

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 12.05.15Dalrymple writes in the preface to Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses that in much of the world, the miseries of poverty

are no longer those of raw physical deprivation but those induced by comparison with the vast numbers of prosperous people by whom the relatively poor are surrounded and whose comparative wealth the poor feel as a wound, a reproach, and an injustice.

Ronnie Kaufman's photo on a jacket by Jen Huppert Design

Photo by Ronnie Kaufman on a jacket by Jen Huppert Design for the Ivan R. Dee (Chicago) 2005 edition

In the 20th century,

the hope of progress has not proved altogether illusory,


neither has the fear of retrogression proved unjustified.

The First World War

destroyed facile optimism that progress towards heaven on earth was inevitable or even possible.

Then came communism and Nazism, which between them

destroyed scores of millions of lives in a fashion that only a few short decades before would have appeared inconceivable.

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 12.47.50Many of the disasters of the 20th century

could be characterised as revolts against civilisation itself: the Cultural Revolution, or the Khmers Rouges.

Only recently, in Rwanda,

ordinary people were transformed into pitiless murderers by demagogic appeals over the radio. They achieved a rate of slaughter with their machetes never equalled even by the Nazis.

In the circumstances,

one might have supposed that a principal preoccupation of intellectuals would be the maintenance of the boundaries that separate civilisation from barbarism.

One would be wrong.

Some have embraced barbarism; others have remained unaware that boundaries do not maintain themselves and are in need of maintenance and sometimes vigorous defence.

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 12.54.10The prestige intellectuals confer upon antinomianism

soon communicates itself to nonintellectuals. What is good for the bohemian sooner or later becomes good for the unskilled worker, the unemployed, the welfare recipient — the very people most in need of boundaries to make their lives tolerable or allow them hope of improvement. The result is moral, spiritual, and emotional squalor, engendering fleeting pleasures and prolonged suffering.


Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 12.55.17needs conservation as much as it needs change, and immoderate criticism, or criticism from the standpoint of utopian first principles, is capable of doing much — indeed devastating — harm. No man is so brilliant that he can work everything out for himself, so that the wisdom of the ages has nothing useful to tell him. To imagine otherwise is to indulge in the most egotistical of hubris.

The disastrous notions of the underclass about how to live

derive from the unrealistic, self-indulgent, and often fatuous ideas of social critics.


Zweig’s descent from bliss to torment

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 22.25.31The main themes of the writings of Stefan Zweig are, Dalrymple explains,

  • the part that passion plays in human life. The need for control and the need for expression are in constant tension; any attempt to resolve the contradictions of our existence by dogmatic reference to a simple doctrine (and, compared with life, all doctrines are simple) will end in monomania and barbarism.
  • the destruction of civilisation by political dogma, exemplified by the wars that destroyed Zweig’s world and led him to suicide.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 22.27.32Having grown up in a world

where it was possible to live happily as so free an agent, Zweig found himself plunged into a world where it became impossible, where men had to organize to resist evil so that any freedom at all might be enjoyed.

In such a world,

Zweig’s refusal to commit to any collective institution or endeavour appeared feeble and parasitic.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 22.28.44Early in life,

by cultivating the acquaintance of prostitutes, pimps, and others on the margins of society, he learned about the lower depths, from whose ugly reality his status as a child of the haute bourgeoisie had sheltered him.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 22.31.29War

smashed the old world that Zweig so esteemed.

He saw the storm clouds gathering over his native Austria earlier than many. But other German exiles criticized him for being insufficiently vociferous in denouncing the Nazis.

Hitler in Vienna

The messenger of misery comes to Vienna

It is true that he joined no anti-Nazi groups and hardly raised his voice against the Nazi horror. As a free man, he did not want the Nazis to be able to dictate his mode of expression—even if it were in opposition to them. The insufficiency of this fastidiousness at such a conjuncture needs little emphasis.

But Zweig felt

that strident denunciation would grant the Nazis a victory of sorts. And—like many intellectuals who overestimate the importance that the intellect plays in history and in life—Zweig viewed the Nazis as beneath contempt. Their doctrine and world outlook being so obviously ridiculous and morally odious, why waste time refuting them?

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 22.39.37The nearest he came to denouncing the Nazis

was in one of his brilliant historical studies, published in 1936: The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin.

Of course, it was not so easy to dismiss the Nazis.

The contempt of a fastidious aesthete would not defeat them: far sterner measures were necessary. But Zweig, born in the pre-ideological age, did not want to live in a world where the only alternative to one ideology was what he thought would be a counter-ideology.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 22.54.57Dalrymple doubts that the modern world would have pleased Zweig.

The shrillness of our ideological debates, the emotional shallowness, the vulgarity of our culture, would have appalled him.

To read Zweig

is to learn what, through stupidity and evil, we progressively lost in the twentieth century.

A title that captures the change wrought by the cataclysm that was the First World War

'My bitter leave-taking of England,' Graves wrote.

‘My bitter leave-taking of England,’ Graves called it.

À notre cher fils

Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 00.20.39


Albert Rapilly

Lieutt 10e génie détaché à l’escadrille SPAD 278


Mort au champ d’honneur le 29 juillet 1918 au Grand-Rozoy (Aisne)

The simple inscription, as Dalrymple points out,

conveys the pain of the parents more eloquently than a more florid one would have done.

Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 00.26.02


Grand-Rozoy (Aisne): 'Avec son pilote Adolphe Cabouillet' — 'Éternels regrets!'

Grand-Rozoy (Aisne): ‘Avec son pilote Adolphe Cabouillet’ — ‘Éternels regrets!’

Could Ebola spread like Spanish flu?

The 1918 pandemic, Dalrymple reminds us, killed three or four times as many people as the First World War did.

With Ebola, what happens is that

the patient has a severe flu-like illness at first, but it soon gets worse. Both Marburg and Ebola are what are known as hæmorrhagic fevers, that is to say fevers that cause the blood to fail to coagulate properly so that bleeding becomes general. It is a horrible thing to see and way to die: patients leak blood everywhere.

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Les communisants

Screen Shot 2013-02-28 at 02.22.54Dalrymple very often finds it hard to conceal — in truth, he makes little effort to suppress — his utter disgust over the  decadence of Western Europe, its unbridled nature, the general antinomianism. At the same time he draws attention to the fact that it was the USSR, deadly but prim, that seemed to offer Western decadents the realisation of their fondest hopes. Moscow was akin to a sexual fantasy for these people.

The Soviet Union, the decadent intellectuals felt, could be their saviour. Why? Fundamentally because it appeared to be

the best hope for the destruction of the civilisation they so hated.Screen Shot 2013-02-28 at 02.24.46

They visited communist Russia and the ‘people’s democracies’ of Eastern Europe often, though the vast majority regretfully declined to take up the opportunity to emigrate there.

Dalrymple also points to

Raymond Aron’s observation that faith [in communist Russia] was at its most fervent when the country was at its worst, at its most murderous; faith began to waver when mass murder declined into everyday pervasive oppression.