I recently wrote of the Finnish Civil War, where the Whites defeated the Reds. In the twentieth century, that pattern was unfortunately the exception, with the more common result being seen in the Russian Civil War of 1918–20, where the Russian Reds defeated the Russian Whites. That struggle, though not as forgotten as the Finnish Civil War, does not loom large in modern consciousness, and books on it are rare. This volume, the recently-reprinted war memoir of Pyotr Wrangel, probably the most successful and certainly the most charismatic of the White generals, addresses that gap. It also carries many lessons, including about what might occur in a twenty-first-century ideological civil war in a large country.
You have likely never heard of the Finnish Civil War. A brief war, in some ways a simple war, it lasted only three months, from late January to late April, 1918, but killed around one percent of the population. It was started by the Left, the Reds, and ended by the rest of Finnish society, the Whites, who crushed the Reds, preserving Finland from the fate of Bolshevik Russia. This war is an object lesson in how even a homogenous, largely united country can quickly end up in civil war when part of the population becomes gripped with Left ideology, and it is also an object lesson in what to do in response. Listen, and learn.
Who thinks much about Finland? During the Cold War, because of its buffer position, it was occasionally in the news. More recently, Nokia was prominent for a while. But I doubt if most Americans could name one famous Finn. Even expatriate Finns aren’t prominent—Eero Saarinen designed some famous structures, such as the Gateway Arch, and Matt Damon’s great-grandmother was Finnish, but really, what happens in Finland, stays in Finland. However, I read this book as background to my main focus, to come in another piece—the three-month Finnish civil war of early 1918, in which the country saved itself from Communism. To write that, I needed to first learn basic Finnish history, which it turns out, in the manner of most histories, is quite interesting.
We all like to imagine ourselves as heroes. We watch movies, and we instinctively put ourselves in the place of the hero, not in the place of the villain. We read the histories of twentieth-century tyrannies, and we assume we would be the resistance fighter, not the collaborator, informer, or toady to the new archons. Maybe we would be heroes. But probably not, if history is any guide. Czeslaw Milosz’s 1951 The Captive Mind explores, through the author’s personal experience, what motivates seemingly morally strong, thoughtful men to instead cooperate with, and often embrace, evil. Sadly, this question is as relevant today as seventy years ago, which makes this book very much worth reading for its insights into the future, as well as into the past.
I am in an odd position with respect to Hungary. Because I’m half Hungarian, speak the language (rustily now) and two decades ago spent nearly a year there, I know much more than most Americans. In fact, the first post-Communist prime minister, József Antall, was my grandfather’s first cousin. On the other hand, my knowledge of current Hungarian events is gleaned mostly from English-language media, which is almost all both grossly ignorant and grossly biased. Lasse Skytt, a Danish journalist resident in Hungary, has arrived to help me out, by offering an excellent neutral view of Hungarian politics, deliberately designed to be purely informative, rather than polemical.
I am fond of pointing out that the safety and security we think we enjoy is, historically speaking, anomalous and ephemeral. This memoir, by the late Kristina von Rosenvinge, brings this truth to life. It is not a maudlin tale of woe. Instead, it is optimistic and grateful, even though the events it narrates, of her young life during World War II and immediately after, must objectively have been extremely trying. And since I am always looking for additional messages in books, aside from simple human interest, I found her story has much to tell us both about history, and about the future.
I continue to be fascinated by the Bolshevik Revolution, because in its success there are many lessons. Unbiased history and biography of the Bolsheviks is a relatively recent phenomenon; prior to 1991, a combination of lack of primary materials and philo-Communism among Western historians meant very few objective books were published. Since 1991, though, the balance has shifted, even if plenty of Communist-loving propaganda is still published by major historians, because the global Left has always, and continues to, fully support the goals and methods of Communism. They mostly just keep it a bit more quiet in public than they used to.
It seems to me that we in the West are like men in a cavern, out of which lead many paths, none signposted. Some paths lead to bright futures, but other paths lead to terrible ones, among them those where, once again as we did not so very long ago, we slaughter each other over ideology. And the way back is closed, so we must choose one path forward. The service of this book is that it illustrates Solzhenitsyn’s dictum, that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. Thus, reflecting upon this book may help us choose the correct exit from the cavern, and to that end, it is worth bearing the unease that comes over us when we read books like this. This book, a staple of Holocaust studies for twenty-five years, has recently risen to fresh prominence due to repeated mentions of it by Canadian psychologist, and superstar, Jordan Peterson. His focus on the book arises from his own decades-long study of evil regimes, and his thought on how …
I am currently very focused on the ascent to power of Communism in Russia, not because it had anything to recommend it, but for the lessons it can teach us. Some of those lessons are ones the author of this book, Sean McMeekin, wants to impart—the dangers of left-wing ideology, primarily. Those are valuable lessons, certainly, but if we haven’t learned them after many decades of left-wing horror shows, we’re not going to learn them from this book. The lessons I am seeking, therefore, are more dynamic: how power can be grasped and used in fluid, chaotic situations, and by what kind of people. And those lessons are also on full display in this book, even if I did not learn any new ones.
This is a book that rewards patience. The problem is, I am not a patient man, nor do I think that the reward here would be commensurate with the effort. Thus, I spent enough time, which was quite a bit, to grasp maybe half of this book. I think the rest escaped me. That’s partially my fault—but it’s also the author’s fault, since an elliptical writing style combined with frequent use of untranslated French phrases (even the educated don’t generally learn French anymore), along with scatterings of Greek, does not conduce to good communication. And aside from foreign languages, Arendt’s thought sometimes is so obscure as to be ethereal, an odd trait in a book that (in this edition) features a clenched fist on the cover, which is really not truth in advertising.