Fist Of History

February, 2010Archive for

Book Review: King Leopold’s Ghost

Friday, February 19th, 2010

Recently I finished reading an incredibly well written book titled King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa written by Adam Hochschild, this book is focused upon the acquisition by Belgium of an African colony in the Congo region and the subsequent economic, social, and political exploitation and terror of that region by various different forces within the region.  In summary Hochschild argues that Belgium’s acquisition of a large colony in the Congo was due mainly to the territorial ambitions of its king at the time, King Leopold II, and Leopold gained that territory through a clever campaign of subterfuge, misdirection, diplomacy, intrigue, and lobbying both directly by King Leopold and by a web of his personal agents.  Hochschild then proceeds to examine the actual policies and actions of the various organizations and companies that ran Leopold’s newly acquired Congo colony.  Hochschild spends considerable time skillfully showing how Leopold ruled the Congo directly and treated it as a personal fiefdom, those agents acting within the territory did so at his personal approval and the funds raised from the various raw materials gathering efforts in the Congo went directly into Leopold’s personal fortune.

Probably the cornerstone value of this work is how Hochschild focuses attention upon both the atrocities conducted in the Congo by the agents of Leopold throughout his personal control of the colony, the extreme focus upon extracting the highest return of resources possible from the Congo during this period (specifically ivory and subsequently rubber), and the pioneering efforts by various concerned individual missionaries and reformers to bring about an end to Leopold’s abuses in the Congo.  Abuses is a highly appropriate word as evidence from various sources cited by Hochschild provide convincing evidence that during the roughly thirty years that Leopold personally ruled the Congo colony approximately fifty percent of the total indigenous population, or between 8 to 10 million people, died from both direct violence and indirect suffering at the hands of Leopold’s Congo policies and agents.  In addition to the high death count many survivors of this period lost their right hand to violence, a policy in the Congo was that it was expected for every round of ammunition fired an indigenous individual was to be killed.  Local soldiers who used their weapons to hunt would often take the right hand of a person still alive to even out their count.

As well Hochschild also does an incredible job of detailing the link between the novel Heart of Darkness and its authors real time spent in the Congo region.  Hochschild details how many of the events depicted in Heart of Darkness are directly drawn from Conrad’s own time in the Congo during this period.  The only complaint I would have for this book is, honestly, the title, it seems to imply a focus upon the post-Leopold II time in the Congo and the impact that ruler had on the region after his demise.  However this topic is only lightly covered in the final chapter of the book itself, most of the focus is on Leopold II and those who directly opposed him.  But beyond that minor complaint, this is an excellent book and I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in either the colonial era in Africa, Belgian politics in the Congo, or a good very character focused history.

German Hyper-Inflation of 1922 to 1923

Friday, February 19th, 2010

An interesting event of the interwar years in Europe (1919 – 1939) was an incident that occurred in the German Weimar Republic between 1922 to 1923, an incident in which the currency of Germany lost almost all real value.  The collapse of the value of Germany’s currency was due to a series of different forces that came together to put an incredible strain upon Germany’s economy between 1919 to 1922.  First Germany, under the Treaty of Versailles, was required to make a series of reparations payments to France and Great Britain, reparations payments that had to be made in gold backed currency.  Second Germany with the end of the First World War had to switch its economy from a wartime economy, based upon heavy government borrowing and spending on items of war, to one of peacetime productivity in which the Weimar government greatly diminished the amount of money the German government pumped into the economy.  Third Germany, due to territorial losses, entered the 1920s with less industrial productivity and a smaller raw materials base upon which to build its economic recovery, although Germany even in this diminished state was still a dominant economic power in Europe.  Fourth Germany from 1919 – 1922 went through a period of strong political unrest, during this period several armed coups and attempts to overthrow the government shook public confidence in the stability of Germany politically and socially.  Fifth, and finally, the Weimar government due to intense political pressure could not raise taxes to meet the expanded social support obligations it had taken on with the end of the First World War, as part of Germany’s movement from a monarchical imperial structure to a socialist republic.  This intense political pressure came from parties on the political right in Germany, who treated any effort to raise taxes by the Weimar government as a form of appeasement to the Allied powers and their demands for reparations, demands many in Germany considered unfair and inflammatory.

So the German Weimar government, unable to raise sufficient capital through borrowing, unable to raise revenue in taxes, needing to finance the private sector’s efforts to change the economy to a peacetime footing, needing to pay for social services and the function of government, and needing to purchase gold to back the banknotes with which it paid the Allied reparations, resorted to the only technique available to it to meet these needs: it simply issued more currency into the economy.  Vast amounts of currency, the collapse of the value of the Reichmark to other currencies was rapid and total, from early 1922 to late 1923 the Reichmark to the US Dollar fell from 7000 marks to the dollar in December 1922 to 4,200,000,000,000 marks to the dollar in December 1923.  This sudden collapse in the value of currency had several interesting impacts on Germany society, first it meant that those who lived on any fixed incomes found the value of their income disappearing quickly.  Those who owed debts on items found the value of that debt collapsing quickly, meaning a debtor could repay a debt with currency worth far less then the currency they had borrowed, in buying power terms.  German businesses often took advantage of this fact to purchase new equipment at effectively deep discounts, paying the debt as late as they could with vastly devalued currency.  The collapse was only arrested from 1924 onwards through careful conservative banking, currency deflation through issuing a brand new currency, and fiscal stringency.  The net effect of this economic collapse though was many Germans coming into the mid-1920s found themselves starting over economically.

Historically this incident is interesting because it has an impact on many key events that happened later in the 1920s and 1930s, first and most critically this incident undermined the faith of the German public in the capacity of the Weimar government to effectively lead Germany.  Although from 1924 until 1929 public confidence increased in the capacity of the Weimar republic to govern, this disaster was blamed on the policies of Weimar and when the Germany economy collapsed again due to the events of the massive global economic contraction of the 1930s, the public took this as further proof the Weimar state could not lead Germany effectively.  The German hyperinflation of 1922 through 1923 hurt Germany’s economic recovery in the mid-1920s, many German businesses having bought considerable new equipment during  the hyperinflation to take advantage of a period of unintentional “discounts” in cost found themselves with too much productive capacity for the demands of the Germany economy.  Germany halting payments on the reparations, in part due to the hyperinflation, lead to the French and Belgian occupation of the Ruhr territory in 1923, an event which further seemed to indicate the weakness of the Weimar government.  (On a side note the policy of passive resistance implemented by the Weimar government, requiring it to pay millions of Germans who agreed not to work to prevent France and Belgium gaining benefits from the occupied productive resources of the Ruhr, simply lead to more expenditures by the Weimar government in worthless currency.)

Finally though the hyperinflation of 1922 to 1923 gave considerable political capital to both of the extreme ends of the German political spectrum, the extreme right and the extreme left.  Many in Germany in reaction to these events, and the future economic collapse of the 1930s, were increasing willing to consider more “radical” political solutions to Germany’s perceived and real problems.  Political capital gained from these events, as well as the apparent weakness of the Weimar government it seemed to indicate to the German public, certainly played a part in the eventual rise of Adolph Hitler to political leadership in Germany.  It certainly lead in part to the political instability Hitler attempted to take advantage of on 9 November 1923 with his failed putsch attempt in Bavaria, an event that helped spark Hitler’s national political career in Germany.

Sources:

The Coming of the Third Reich, Richard J. Evans

The Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany, Warren B. Morris, Jr.

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Paul Kennedy

The Declaration of Independence – a perspective

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Probably one of the most cited political documents in the political landscape of the United States, perhaps cited only less then the actual Constitution of the United States itself, is the Declaration of Independence penned by Thomas Jefferson in 1776.  Most citizens of the United States are familiar with the portions of the opening lines of the Declaration, usually the most famous quote of all: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Some who are particularly familiar with the document will also know that right after those famous words Jefferson proceeds to state that governments are created by groups of people to safeguard those rights and, should a government fail to do so, it is the duty of the citizens under that government to remove it and replace it with one that does safeguard those rights.  Sadly though most citizens of the United States have never read the rest of the document nor are they particularly familiar with the political reality with which Jefferson and his fellow delegates at the Continental Congress were attempting to grapple, a nearly despotic government in the literal sense of the word.

Right after the famous introduction to the Declaration of Independence Jefferson proceeded to state a specific list of charges against the King of England and the King’s government over the colonies, specific charges of misconduct that were the reason that the American colonies needed to end their long standing allegiance to the British crown and instead seek out to forge a new independent nation.  I highly recommend you take a moment and pursue these charges leveled against the King and his government, check out the source linked below for an accurate rendition of the text of the Declaration of Independence.  Probably the most common theme that Jefferson writes about is how the King, through various means, has prevented the colonies from passing legislation to administer their own affairs efficiently, properly, and internally.  In addition the King is accused of taking active steps to make it very difficult for the legislatures of the colonies to meet or conduct their business on behalf of those who have elected them to office.  In addition Jefferson also charges that the British crown has taken from the colonists property without proper compensation, by forcing them to quarter troops on their own property, and maintained standing armies on the soil of the colonies without the consent of those forced to provide for, and live among, those troops.  Finally Jefferson outlines many cases in which citizens of the colonies have been denied what could be considered a fair trial, through mechanisms such as being transported to England for trail, false trails for crimes committed on behalf of the Crown’s interests, and individuals being simply seized for service in the British navy without any sort of recourse.  Finally Jefferson outlines several cases in which the policy of the British crown has arbitrarily imposed taxes upon the citizens of the colonies and has blocked the natural economic growth of the American colonies.

The key element to the Declaration of Independence that many modern citizens of the United States fail to comprehend is that Jefferson was writing against a system of government that was, for the colonies, very nearly a true tyranny.  The British crown had considerable authority within the American colonies, by 1776 many of them had had their charters revoked and had instead been turned into Crown colonies, meaning that their political, civil, and judicial leadership was answerable solely to the British crown.  The citizens of the American colonies had no legal recourse to appeal against the edicts imposed upon them by the British crown and executed by military forces loyal to the British crown, military forces that were disconnected from the communities in which they enforced the law.  (Hence the charge by Jefferson that the British crown had placed mercenary forces in the colonies, specifically German mercenaries whose loyalty was purchased by the British crown, a long-standing relationship.)  Even the British parliament, a legislative force that could restrict the power of the British crown in any way it chose to, had no representatives from the American colonies within it to promote the interests of the colonists.

The Declaration of Independence was a statement of desperation in many ways, as well as a potent tool of political propaganda, Jefferson and his fellow delegates were arguing the case for independence more to their own fellow citizens then stating their causes to the British crown.  None the less though the Declaration clearly argues that because of all the violations by the British crown of the basic human rights held by the colonists, and because the British crown was unresponsive to all efforts to end these abuses, the colonists had no choice but to take up arms to win their independence from an unresponsive, tyrannical form of government.  Fortunately modern citizens of the United States have another option short of armed rebellion to instill change in their government, the ballot box, which despite the feelings of some citizens of the United States is a powerful tool by which the citizen base not only provides its consent to be ruled but also directly shapes the nature of government.  Now this is not to say that democracy in the United States is not without its serious flaws, historic and modern, but the very fact that citizens of the United States can vote, and those votes do select the leadership of the various governments of the United States, marks this nation as one which has moved far from the tyrannical roots that the Jefferson with his Declaration of Independence cried out against.

As an interesting additional exercise after reading the Declaration of Independence review the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States, specifically the Bill of Rights, you will notice that each amendment in the Bill of Rights neatly addresses some aspect of the abuses of power outlined in the Declaration of Independence.  It is a brilliant symmetry of design and one often not appreciated today.

Sources:

The Declaration of Independence, a full text

The Bill of Rights to the Constitution of the United States of America, a full text