Fall of Eagles: The Mayerling Incident

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I swear I’m not intending to do an episode-by-episode breakdown of Fall of Eagles. It’s just worked out that way, because after looking at the first three posts, I’m going to discuss the fourth episode, “Requiem for a Crown Prince,” which deals with the Mayerling Incident.

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Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria-Hungary

When last we left Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary, they had gotten themselves into a marriage that left Elisabeth rather unhappy. They had three daughters and one son, Rudolph, who thereby became the heir to the throne. Rudolph was quite different from his rather cold, conservative father. He was very interested in natural science and ornithology. Politically he was a Liberal, and so got along rather poorly with his father, but made him closer to his mother (so that he was sort of the opposite of his cousin Wilhelm II of Germany). Rudolph also had quite the eye for ladies, and had a string of mistresses and brief affairs with prostitutes, both before and after he married Princess Stephanie of Belgium, a very conservative woman.

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Crown Prince Rudolph

It was not a happy marriage. After having a daughter, Elisabeth, Rudolph reportedly passed his wife the gonorrhea he had acquired from prostitutes, rendering her infertile. The couple became quite cold to each other and both took other partners. Viennese  society in this period has been characterized as frivolous and dissipated, as the Austrian nobility sought to distract themselves from the humiliation that Bismarck and the Prussian army had inflicted on them at the battle of Sadowa, and there was considerable social room for the Crown Prince to dally with women. Minor Austrian nobles frequently paraded their young daughters through society, hoping to snag husbands who could elevate the family’s fortunes.

One such young woman was Baroness Marie Vetsera (usually referred to as Mary). She was a 17-year old girl whose mother Helene was grooming her to find a husband in upper society. Mary was reportedly a striking young woman noted for her dark eyes, her profile, and her elegant neck, as well as her self-confidence. Rudolph began a relationship with her that lasted either 3 months (assuming it began in Nov of 1888, as most accounts seem to think, although some say it lasted about 3 years). She seems to have imaged that the unhappy Rudolph would divorce Stephanie and marry her, despite several people making it clear to her that the pope would never permit the divorce. Her mother wanted her to move on to find a more suitable prospect, but she resisted, perhaps because she resented her mother’s intention to pimp her out for an advantageous marriage. Rudolph for his part was not deeply smitten with her, since he was simultaneously carrying on a relationship with a Viennese actress, Mizzi Kaspar.

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Baroness Mary Vetsera

Rudolph appears to have been a rather unhappy man, perhaps even mentally ill. He was taking a good deal of morphine for medical problems and dealing with the effects of gonorrhea and perhaps alcoholism as well. About three months before meeting Mary Vetsera, he asked Mizzi to join him in a suicide pact. She turned down the offer and actually reported it to the police, but they ignored it. He also quarreled with his father about his relationship with Mary, as well as politics.

The Mayerling Incident

On the 29th of January, 1891, Rudolph and Mary traveled to his hunting lodge at Mayerling. The next morning, Rudolph’s valet, Loschek tried to wake him, but found the door to his room locked. When he and the count’s hunting companion, Count Hoyos, finally chopped the door down with an axe, they found two bodies. Rudolph was sitting motionless beside the bed, bleeding from the mouth. Mary was found lying on the bed, cold and motionless, and appeared to have been dead longer than Rudolph. Loschek mistakenly assumed from the blood on Rudolph’s mouth that he had drunk strychnine, an assumption that caused much confusion later on.

Hoyos caught the next train to Vienna. It was decided, based on court protocol, that only the Empress could tell the Emperor what had happened. This required them to interrupt the Empress’ Greek lesson, which proved challenging because they did not want to tell her why they needed to speak with her and she did not want to be distracted from the lesson. Eventually, though, the Empress received the news and broke down weeping. The Emperor was summoned, but had to wait until the Empress could compose herself, while the rest of the court, who mostly already knew the news, had to try not to cry. When Empress Elisabeth finally told him what had happened, he was deeply affected; some say the news broke him permanently.

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The lodge at Mayerling

The Austrian Prime Minister, Eduard Taaffe, issued a statement that Rudolph had died of an “aneurism of the heart.” The court, following Loschek, initially thought that Mary had poisoned Rudolph; even her mother Helene believed that. The next day, a doctor finally examined the bodies and declared that Mary had been shot in the temple and Rudolph had also been shot. It appeared that Rudolph had shot Mary and then, several hours later, shot himself.

Complicating all of this was the decision to smuggle Mary’s corpse out of Mayerling. In an attempt to avoid the press, the body was dressed in clothing and seated (very awkwardly, because rigor mortis had set in) between two men in a carriage. It was taken to a nearby graveyard and hastily buried.

Franz Joseph ordered an investigation by the police, but then quickly pressured them to close it and ordered Taaffe to hide the results. It seemed clear that Rudolph had committed suicide, and by Catholic Church law, suicides could not be buried in consecrated ground, which meant he could not be buried in the Imperial Crypt. Eventually, though, the Vatican issued a dispensation declaring that Rudolph had been in a state of mental imbalance, which meant that he could be buried in the Imperial Crypt.

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A newspaper illustration purporting to show Rudolph’s deathbed

Since 1889, all sorts of wild speculation has circulated about what really happened. Had Mary bled to death after a botched abortion? Had her uncles broken into Mayerling and killed him in a drunken brawl? Did he kill her in a drug-fueled rage? Were they murdered by assassins, such as Hungarian Nationalists? Had Franz Joseph orchestrated the murder after his son refused to break up with Mary? Had a Freemason vow forced Rudolph to commit suicide?

Although the full story cannot be easily reconstructed, new evidence turned up in the 20th century. After WWII, Soviet troops broken into Mary’s grave, hoping to loot it of jewels. In 1959, a young local physician, prompted by the Vetsera family, conducted an investigation into Mary’s body and found no evidence of a bullet hole in her remains. He proposed that she had died in a botched abortion. In 1989, the last Austrian Empress, Zita, claimed that the couple had been murdered because Rudolph refused to support a French plan to depose Franz Joseph in favor of the more Liberal (and potentially pro-French) Rudolph. But she offered no evidence, Given that she was born three years after the Mayerling Incident, she cannot have had any first-hand knowledge of the events.

Then in 1991, a man obsessed with the story actually stole Vetsera’s remains and kept them for two years before being discovered. He paid for a forensic examination, which found inconclusive evidence that Mary might have been hit on the head several times, raising the spectre that a deranged Rudolph might have violently assaulted her because she refused to die with him, or that assailants had somehow broken in and attacked the couple. A report from the time of the police investigation also surfaced indicating that all six bullets in the gun had been fired, and that the gun did not belong to Rudolph. Presumably Rudolph could not have shot himself six times. However, theories that a killer had murdered the couple probably would have been preferable to admitting that the Rudolph had gone mad and shot his mistress and then himself. So it is unlikely that the Emperor orchestrated a cover-up with the humiliating story that Rudolph had become deranged.

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Mary Vetsera’s frequently-opened grave

Then just two years ago, crucial evidence turned up. An Austrian bank discovered a deposit box unused since 1926 which turned out to contain a leather folio containing three suicide letters written by Mary the night of her death. Although it is not possible to determine who deposited the letters, the Austrian National Library authenticated the letters. Rudolph himself left behind no fewer than six suicide letters, all but one of which he wrote before departing for Mayerling. Thus it appears that the couple intended to commit suicide, although exactly how it happened is not clear.

What Rudolph’s motives were for his suicide are unclear. The letters he wrote all emphasize that his honor was at stake in some way. He was profoundly in debt; he owed one member of the court a sum equal to a quarter of his entire estate. He also seems to have gotten deeply entangled in a plot by Hungarian Nationalists to make him King of Hungary; the Nationalist Istvan Karolyi may have been trying to blackmail him in some fashion. He does not seem to have killed himself because he loved Mary and was unable to wed her; he spent his last night in Vienna with Mizzi. Instead, he seems to have needed someone else to help him go through with the deed; at one point he asked a male secretary to join him.

What Impact Did Rudolph’s Death Have?

What If is a great historical game, although by definition counter-factual scenarios are impossible to prove. Rudolph’s office of Crown Prince and heir passed to Joseph’s younger brother Karl Ludwig, who is often incorrectly reported to have abdicated immediately in favor of his son, Franz Ferdinand; in fact, he held the title until his death in 1896, when his son became the heir. Franz Ferdinand, of course, was famously assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914, triggering the Great War that ultimately pulled down the three empires that Fall of Eagles focuses on. So, as many people have pointed out, if Rudolph had not killed himself, Franz Ferdinand would never have become the Crown Prince and the assassination at Sarajevo would not have happened, and thus the Great War would not have happened.

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Franz Ferdinand and his wife shortly before the assassination

That’s true, but also wrong. There is no way to know whether Rudolph might have decided to go to Sarajevo in 1914 and been shot there instead of Franz Ferdinand. Perhaps Rudolph might have gotten assassinated somewhere else. Or more likely, something else might have sparked the Great War. Franz Ferdinand’s murder was the spark that triggered the war but it was hardly the cause of the whole conflagration.

Franz Joseph held onto his office of Empire for 68 years, a remarkably long reign. He got along poorly with Franz Ferdinand, who insisted on marrying a woman of the low nobility; the emperor considered her inappropriate because she had no royal blood. Although he finally relented, he insisted that the children of the marriage be excluded from the line of succession. The two men clashed repeatedly on political issues. Although both were hostile to Hungarian Nationalism, Franz Ferdinand wanted to grant greater autonomy to other ethnic minorities, and felt that Austria should act more boldly on the European stage. So it’s been suggested that Franz Joseph held onto his crown for so long because he did not want to pass it on to Franz Ferdinand. If Rudolph had been alive, perhaps Franz Joseph would have abdicated, in which case a much more Liberal man would have taken charge of the Empire and might have guided it in a direction that would have prevented the Great War.

Or maybe the fact that Rudolph was far more Liberal than his father meant that Franz Joseph would never have abdicated under any circumstances. Like Frederick III of Germany, he had been excluded from any role in government by his father and the Prime Minister. The idea that Franz Joseph would have abdicated in favor of his son seems implausible to me.

In the long run, it’s impossible to say whether Rudolph’s suicide truly matters in the lead-up to the Great War or not. Given that a quarter century passed between his death and the events at Sarajevo, I’m inclined to think that it is a mistake to see his suicide as being a cause of the War.

Requiem for a Crown Prince”

The episode differs from others in the series by having a first-person narrator (Prime Minister Count Taaffe, played by Emrys James) and by the scenes being time-stamped, presumably to help the audience keep track of the complex events.

After a brief introduction, the story starts with Loschek (Michael Sheard) being unable to get into Rudolph’s room. After discovering what appears to be a suicide note written by Mary on a bowl outside his room, Prince Philip of Coburg (Anthony Newland) shows up because Helene Vetsera has gotten the police to declare her daughter missing, so that everyone is searching for her and there are suspicions she is at Mayerling. They chop down the door but barely go in, and initially suspect that the Crown Prince has overdosed on morphia. Hoyos is dispatched to Vienna to inform the emperor while the other man stays to guard the body.

The emphasis in the episode is split between efforts to deal with the crisis and Empress Elisabeth’s response. Dramatically, the heart of the episode is Rachel Gurney as Elisabeth, who alternates between grief and fury, excoriating Helene Vetsera (Irene Hamilton) for parading her daughter before Rudolph. The empress accuses Helene of having seduced Rudolph years ago and then when Rudolph tired of her, of offering him her daughter instead. Helene is simultaneously grief-stricken and struggling to preserve her family’s prospects at court. The empress weaves a story that Mary poisoned Rudolph after he told her that he could not divorce his wife. But Crown Princess Stephanie immediately concludes that it was a suicide pact, since Rudolph had asked her to die with him the previous year.

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Gurney as Elisabeth

The episode emphasizes that the court’s reaction was a mixture of incompetence and cover-up. Hoyos initially tells the empress that Mary Vetsera poisoned Rudolph. The empress however declares that heart failure will be the cover story. When Dr Widerhofer (Kenneth Benda) explains to Prince Philip at Mayerling that Mary must have died first and that Rudolph died from a bullet to the head, Philip immediately tries to twist the evidence to implicate Mary. But Widerhofer insists that Mary died hours before Rudolph. He suggests temporary insanity as a possible excuse.

Back in Vienna, the police get news that there was a hunting accident at Mayerling, but Taaffe says it was poison. He says that the police need to find a way to get Mary’s corpse away from Mayerling without scandal. The police commissioner (Frank Wylie) tries to take charge of the crime scene, but Prince Philip insists that the lodge is imperial ground and outside police jurisdiction. An official of the criminal court shows up to investigate, as does Count Stookau, Helene’s brother, who discovers from a servant that Rudolph died by gunshot, not poison. So he concludes that Rudolph shot Mary, and demands her body.

By this point, Rudolph’s suicide letters have been found, entirely exploding the original story, but the royal family remains unaware. It’s only when Widerhofer tells the emperor that Rudolph shot himself that they discover the truth. It comes out that Rudolph left his money to Mizzi Kaspar, and the empress begins to think that her son might have murdered the unsuspecting Mary.

The police commissioner tries to get a local abbot to take Mary’s body, telling him that she committed suicide on her own on the grounds of the Mayerling estate. But the abbot refuses to receive the body if she killed herself, eventually agreeing to perform a service. The body is given over to Mary’s uncles, who have trouble getting the body to sit in a carriage because of rigor mortis. The police commissioner callously orders Loschek to fetch an axe, presumably to chop off Mary’s legs, but the furious uncles intervene. Stookau threatens to go to the reporters waiting outside the gates to tell them the truth, even if the police try to shoot him, at which point they are allowed to sit beside the corpse in the carriage and hold it up. Helene is forbidden to attend the burial.

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Emrys as Taaffe

The episode ends with Taaffe’s thoughts about the situation. He says that Rudolph’s bad character had already destroyed the Liberal cause in Austria. The show takes the viewpoint that Rudolph’s suicide ensured the continuation of Conservatism in Austrian politics and suggests that Franz Joseph might have considered abdicating in favor of his son, but now felt it was his duty to continue on despite his age. He adds that Empress Elisabeth was murdered a decade later by an Italian anarchist just as Franz Joseph was preparing for the 50 year jubilee for his reign.

I am inclined to call this the best episode of the series. The story holds together both as a human drama and as a look inside a political crisis.  To my mind, Rachel Gurney’s scenes are the best in the whole series, conveying a complex mix of grief, anger, the search of an explanation, and decades of court etiquette that constrain her. The barely-contained fury with which she treats Helene Vetsera is simultanously cruel and sympathizable. If you only watch one episode of this series, “Requiem for a Crown Prince” would be a good choice.

This review was made possible by a reader who made a generous donation to my Paypal account and requested I review this series. If you have something you’d like me to review, make a donation and tell me what you’d like me to watch.

Want to Know More? 

Fall of Eagles is available on Youtube. The series is available through Amazon, but if you decide to buy it, make sure you’re getting a format that will play on your DVD player; some versions only play British and European formats.

If you would like to know more about the Mayerling Incident, Greg King and Penny Wilson have written Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Hapsburgs. I haven’t read the book, and the authors are popuar rather than professional historians, but they do seem to have done some serious research for the book.

Fall of Eagles: Wilhelm II

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In the BBC miniseries Fall of Eagles, Kaiser Wilhelm II looms large, and is probably the closest thing it has to a main character, figuring at some point in the stories of both Austria and Russia as well as Germany. So let’s look at him briefly.

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The show devotes its second and third episodes, “The English Princess” and “the Honest Broker”, to the lives of Frederick III (Denis Lill) and his wife Victoria (Gemma Jones). They get along poorly with Frederick’s father Wilhelm I (Maurice Denham), who dislikes the couple’s Liberal political views, which contrast sharply with Wilhelm’s Conservatism. Bismarck (Curt Jürgens) convinces Wilhelm to exclude Frederick from all function in government in the second episode, and then in the third episode invites the young Wilhelm II (Barry Foster) to attend the Foreign Office. Frederick finds this insulting, but his son cannot understand why. The third episode focuses on Frederick’s growing incapacity due to his cancer of the larynx. Wilhelm I’s long life (he died at age 90), combined with Frederick’s cancer, meant that when Frederick finally became emperor in 1888, he only reigned for 99 days, during which his cancer left him almost speechless, and his long exclusion from government meant that he left almost no chance to shape government before it passed into the hands of Wilhelm II, who like his grandfather was essentially a Conservative.

The series emphasizes the poor relationship Frederick and Victoria had with their son. When his grandfather dies, he tentatively talks to Bismarck about a supposed law that says that a man who cannot speak cannot reign, but Bismarck slaps him down. When told that his father is dying, he suspects a plot by his mother. When Frederick dies a few hours later, Wilhelm enters the royal apartments with soldiers and tries to confiscate all of his father’s papers, a concern more important to him than paying his respects to his father. She laments that she feels like the ship of the nation is sinking at sea with all its hopes, and he contemptuously orders her to “go to your room!” This attempt to seize his parents’ papers did in fact happen, but Frederick and Victoria had already sent all of their papers to Windsor Castle the previous year.

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Kaiser Wilhelm II

The series presents Wilhelm in almost entirely negative terms. He is vain, self-important, militaristic, foolish, and basically incapable of appreciating anyone else’s needs. He seems to just disrespect his parents for no particular reason, other than one line in which he angrily says she had no tenderness for him as a child.

This depiction is probably unfair to Wilhelm in some respects. Far from the cold relationship with his father the series offers, Wilhelm had great respect for his father, regarding him as a hero of the German Unification. It was his relationship with his mother that was poor. When she went into labor while carrying him, complications resulted in Wilhelm’s left arm being damaged. It never healed, so his arm was crippled his whole life.

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Empress Victoria of Germany

This was a difficult issue between mother and son. Both of them blamed her for the injury, and Victoria seems to have considered his handicap an embarrassment. Victoria insisted that Wilhelm learn to ride at a very young age, even though his bad arm made this difficult, and when he fell off, as he did frequently, he was forced to get back on, even when he was crying not to. Later he wrote longingly to her of his desire for her affection, but instead she coldly corrected his grammar. So Wilhelm came to view his mother as harsh and domineering, and consequently he resisted her attempts to give him an more Liberal English-style education, and in later life he came to view his father as having been somewhat emasculated by his mother. So the poor relationship came from both sides, not simply from Wilhelm.

The series provides only hints of this dynamic. In the second episode, the young Wilhelm is shown struggling to learn to ride in one scene, but it’s not clear that his mother was demanding it. That and his comment that she had no tenderness for him (a comment that comes while he is treating her remarkably poorly) are the only hints that there was a more complex dynamic at work, and it’s clear that the series takes Victoria’s side at Wilhelm’s expense. So rather than trying to understand the man, the series simply wants to show why he was such a problematic ruler.

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Gemma Jones as the widowed Victoria

The show perhaps betrays a distinctly British view of German history. Bismarck treats Frederick and Victoria poorly and forces them into an isolated position because he wants more power than Frederick’s Liberalism will allow him. He encourages young Wilhelm’s aspirations as a way to remain in power, even though he privately disdains Wilhelm. So he supports Wilhelm against his parents. Then, at the end of the episode, the young Kaiser Wilhelm turns on Bismarck, whom he considers old-fashioned and not aggressive enough in his foreign policy. Bismarck throws one of his tantrums, which had always previously gotten him way with Wilhelm I, only to discover that it weakens his position with the young kaiser even further. Bismarck goes to the Dowager Empress Victoria seeking her help, but she points out that he’s already destroyed her political influence, so she cannot help him. So the show traces the slow growth of Conservatism, the emperor’s dominance of the government, and German aggression through the inability of Frederick and Victoria to influence the political events around them and through Bismarck’s toxic influence on Wilhelm II. If only, the show suggests, Victoria had been allowed more influence, then maybe the Great War would never have happened.

Later episodes continue this portrait of Wilhelm. He insists on commissioning bad allegorical paintings and sending them to his cousin Nicholas II of Russia, even though Nicholas doesn’t particularly want them. He thinks poorly of his relations but imagines that they respect him a great deal. He sees himself as a master statesman, despite being almost totally out of touch with popular opinion and having rather unrealistic ideas of renewing the League of the Three Emperors. None of this is untrue, but the show makes no effort to show any of Wilhelm’s more positive traits such as his intelligence, his preference for modernism over tradition, and his support for science. Contrary to his current reputation as a hawk, in 1913, the New York Times was celebrating him as one of the most important peacemakers of the previous quarter-century. Nor does the series really explore the idea that his crippled arm might have psychologically led him to embrace militarism as a way to compensate for his lack of traditional manliness. Wilhelm was a profoundly erratic and inconsistent man in some ways, but he was probably not quite the boob the series presents him as.

This review was made possible by a reader who made a generous donation to my Paypal account and requested I review this series. If you have something you’d like me to review, make a donation and tell me what you’d like me to watch.

Want to Know More? 

Fall of Eagles is available on Youtube. The series is available through Amazon, but if you decide to buy it, make sure you’re getting a format that will play on your DVD player; some versions only play British and European formats. If you’d like to know more about Wilhelm II, John CG Röhl’s Kaiser Wilhelm II: A Concise Life is a condensed version of Röhl’s prize-winning three-volume biography of the man and would be a good short (262 pages) introduction to him.

Fall of Eagles: The Unification of Germany

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As I discussed in my previous post, Fall of Eagles deals with major political events from the perspective of the royal families of Austria, Prussia/Germany, and Russia, but doesn’t both to explain the wider political movements that were driving many of the major events. Liberalism is frequently referenced, but never explained, and nationalism isn’t even mentioned as an ideology. The first episode deals with the Revolutions of 1848 on Austria and Hungary while focusing mostly on the limited viewpoint of Empress Elisabeth. The second episode, “The English Princess”, takes the same approach to the unification of Germany in the 1860s.

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The main viewpoint character in this episode is Crown Princess Victoria (Gemma Jones), daughter of Queen Victoria and wife of the Prussian Crown Prince Frederick (Denis Lill), son of King William I (Maurice Denham), who is depicted as hesitant, unsure of himself, and prone to fits of tears. Historically. Victoria and Frederick were Liberals, which as I explained in my previous post means they favored a strong Parliament and other representative elements of government, whereas William I and his Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (Curt Jürgens) were Conservatives, so that they favored a strong monarch with few limits on his authority. But the viewer is left to figure this out mostly through William and Bismarck’s preference for an unrestrained military and a willingness to ignore the Prussian Parliament.

The episode focuses on the tensions between William and his son and daughter-in-law. William demands that Frederick express support for press censorship, and when Frederick gives a speech that dodges the issue, William feels betrayed and accuses Frederick of wanting to usurp the throne, and Bismarck counsels William to cut Frederick out of government duties and isolate them. The series frames this as William being unable to conceive of the idea of ‘loyal opposition’, an idea deeply embedded in British politics. Both Victoria and Frederick resent this isolation and their viewpoint is championed in the series with the way the individual scenes frame the situation.

 

The Unification of Germany

The Revolutions of 1848 demonstrated that there were many Germans who wished to see the unification of the fragmented German nation into a single nation-state. Bismarck, however, wanted to strengthen Prussia and turn it into the greatest European power. While a unified Germany was a way to make Prussia more powerful, there was a serious problem. Austria was a rival of Prussia, and unifying the Germans meant bringing both Austria and Prussia into a new German nation-state, which meant that Prussia would not be able to dominate the new Germany. So Bismarck’s Conservatism was at odds with the goals of German Nationalists.

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Otto von Bismarck

Bismarck’s solution to this problem was to use Nationalism as a way to disguise his ambitions for Prussia. Over the 1860s, he waged three wars: the Second Schleswig War in 1864, the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, and the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. He used the Second Schleswig War as an opportunity to promote himself as the defender of the German Nation from Danish oppression, this winning favor with the German Nationalists. When Austria tried to revise the settlement by appealing to a German Diet, Bismarck accused them of violating the terms of the peace treaty and declared war. In fact, Bismarck’s goal was to force Austria into withdrawing from German politics, and the Prussian military trounced Austria brutally at the Battle of Königgrätz, forcing Austria to sue for peace.

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Bismarck watching the battle of Königgrätz

Then Bismarch orchestrated the Franco-Prussian War, editing a telegram from William I to the French ambassador in a way that suggested that William had insulted the French. This tricked Napoleon III into declaring war on Prussia. In the brief war that followed, Prussia again triumphed handily. This gave Bismarck the political capital to press for a German unification that excluded Austria and which allowed Prussia to dictate the terms of the unification. The Nationalists rejoiced to see their goal of German unification advanced so far, while the Liberals looked away from Bismarch’s violent methods and toward the constitution that he offered.

On the surface, the constitution appeared to be a Liberal document, establishing universal manhood suffrage and vesting substantial power in what was essentially a two-house Parliament. The Reichstag (functionally the Lower House) was elected by all male citizens over 25, while the Bundesrat (functionally the Upper House) was appointed by the heads of the individual German states, with Prussia getting as many votes as the next four largest house combined and slightly more than 25% of the total votes. The Bundespräsidium or presidency of the German Confederacy was held by the Prussian king, who received the title of Emperor. But when looks closely at the details of the constitution, it actually grants the king of Prussia enormous power, because the Bundesrat held much more power than the Reichstag, and it was dominated by Prussian appointees, which allowed the king of Prussia to issue orders that the Bundesrat carried out. In practice, this was a Conservative constitution dressed up as a Liberal one, and it vastly increased the power of Prussia by making in the dominant state in Germany.

In the series, William I feels so unable to govern that he attempts to abdicate in favor of his son, but Frederick refuses on the grounds that Hohenzollerns do not abdicate. (Whether this detail is true I am unsure of. I haven’t been able to find any confirmation of it.) Instead, William turns to Bismarck, who takes advantage of the fact that the old man just wants to be told what to do, and sets about engineering the unification of Germany to make himself more powerful. The series makes no mention of the Second Schleswig War, and then focuses on the Austro-Prussian War, which is simply blames on Bismarck’s aggression. There is an extended scene in which Bismarck, having defeated Austria in three battles in as many days now wants to negotiate for peace. William and General von Moltke want to press onward and occupy Vienna, hoping to take Austrian land. Bismarck (backed by Frederick, who dislikes war) says that Austrian land has no value to Prussia. It’s understandable why William and von Moltke can’t understand what Bismarck wants because Bismarck never clearly explains what his purpose for the war is. He gets his way by threatening to quit and then orchestrates the Franco-Prussian War, again failing to explain what his motives are. Somehow, victory over France leads the other German states to press William to become emperor, which he resists but which Frederick presses for.

If one does not know what Bismarck was actually up to, this episode would certainly not enlighten one much about the process of German unification. Bismarck comes off as a steely but emotional man who cares little for human lives other than his soldiers and has little respect for the ruler he serves.

This review was made possible by a reader who made a generous donation to my Paypal account and requested I review this series. If you have something you’d like me to review, make a donation and tell me what you’d like me to watch.

Want to Know More? 

Fall of Eagles is available on Youtube. The series is available through Amazon, but if you decide to buy it, make sure you’re getting a format that will play on your DVD player; some versions only play British and European formats.  For those interested in Bismarck himself, try Jonathan Steinberg’s Bismarck: A LifeIf you want to know more about Bismarck’s unification of Germany, take a look at DG Williamson’s Bismarck and German Unification, 1862-1890.


Fall of Eagles: The Revolutions of 1848

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The BBC miniseries Fall of Eagles concentrates on the big political developments and views them through the lens of the monarchs of Austria, Prussia, and Russia. The show touches on a variety of important socio-political developments, but it makes little effort to explain these developments, with the partial exception of Socialism, which gets a full episode devoted to Lenin (Patrick Stewart) and his maneuverings within the Communist party. So let’s talk about the movements that form a critical background to the events in the series.

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Liberalism and Conservatism

The monarchs in the series make repeated references to ‘liberals’, but exactly what liberals wanted is never directly addressed. Liberalism arguably goes back to the late 17th century, at least as a philosophical movement, but it blossomed as a political movement at the end of the 18th century with the American and French Revolutions. 19th century Liberals, broadly speaking, sought to build on the principles of representative democracy established in those two revolutions (as well as in the 18th century British Parliament). Liberals favored a strong representative body such as a parliament, and wanted this parliament to be elected based on a wide franchise (the right to vote). Different Liberals advocated for a different basis for the franchise: ownership of land, an independent income, adult male status (universal manhood suffrage), or universal suffrage (which would grant women the right to vote), but they all agreed that the general population ought to be directly represented in government. Because they wanted a strong representative element in government, they generally wanted a more restricted executive (either a king or an elected leader) whose powers were clearly defined. Typically, though not inevitably, Liberals wanted to establish a written constitution that clearly laid out the powers of the different segments of the government.

Liberals also tended to favor a notion of basic rights that included such things as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion. In the mid-19th century, British member of Parliament and political philosopher John Stuart Mill articulated what became for more than a century the classic statement of Liberal freedom. He argued that the only reason the state was justified in coercing a citizen was to protect that person from interfering with another citizen’s free exercise of their rights. In Mill’s view, the government had no right to restrict what its citizens could think, say, or believe, and could only restrict what they could do to protect the rights of other citizens.

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John Stuart Mill

The opposing political position was Conservatism, which emerged out of a reaction against the French Revolution. Conservatives tended to follow the principles of British member of Parliament and political philosopher Edmund Burke, who rejected the idea of human equality in favor of a society in which different people had different levels of wealth and political rights based on inheritance. A society with many different competing social groups, Burke argued, could only change through a process of compromise, which would ensure moderation, slow change, and stability. As Burke saw it, monarchy was the best guarantor of stability because kings had the most to lose during a political upheaval.

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Edmund Burke

From Burke’s theories, it followed that what was needed was a strong monarch with wide and less-strictly defined powers. That meant that Conservatives resisted representative institutions or wanted them fairly weak. They favored the political rights of the aristocracy over the rights of the general population, and typically wanted limits on the freedoms that Liberals championed. For example, they often maintained the need for some degree of censorship of ideas and liked the idea of a state church. The Austrian, German, and Russian monarchs in this series are all voices for Conservatism, but the show never identifies them as such because the series is told from their point of view, and to them these positions are simply self-evident. They seek to govern the way their ancestors did, and as a result, they view Liberals as unjustified upstarts.

 

Nationalism

When I teach Modern Western Civilization, I always have to spend a day talking about Nationalism, because it’s an ideology that had a huge impact on 19th and 20th century Europe. I tell my students that they will have a hard time wrapping their heads around it because they think they know what a Nation is, but they’re wrong. In 20th century terminology, a nation is basically just a synonym for a country. But in 19th century terms, a Nation is not a place but rather a group of people. Nations were comprised of people who had a broad set of common characteristics, typically seen as a common ancestry, shared language, shared religion, and shared cultural values such as a particular style of music, cooking, clothing, and so on (although different Nationalists focused on different sets of these traits).

So, for example, the French are clearly a Nation in the 19th century sense of the term. They have a shared ancestry, a common language, tend toward a cultural Catholicism mixed with agnosticism or atheism, a sophisticated cuisine (which they actually teach in primary schools to ensure that children will embrace it), an inexplicable love of lousy Euro-pop, and so on. In contrast, modern Americans are not a Nation; we do not have a common ancestry, we do not all speak one language (although English predominates, many speak Spanish, for example), we do not all belong to a single religion or denomination, and we have a wide range of styles of cooking and music. In other words, what 19th century people called a Nation we would probably call an ethnic group.

On a social level, Nationalists emphasized that people ought to draw their primary sense of identity from their nation and should be loyal to it. They wanted to convince people that they belonged to a Nation. On a political level, what Nationalists wanted was a Nation-State, that is, a political state (a country) whose boundaries included all the members of the nation. So French Nationalists wanted (and to a considerable extent already had) a state of France that included all the French-speaker parts of Europe. There were a few bits along their eastern frontier that were not part of France, but overall, the French nation was mostly in France.

But other European Nationalists were not so lucky. They tended to have one of two problems. German Nationalists had the problem that ‘Germany’ was not a county in the early 19th century, merely a geographic region like the Midwest. The German Nation was divided up between several dozen small states, each of which was its own country. Italian Nationalists had a similar problem; ‘Italy’ was a geographic term, not a country. These Nationalists pursued a goal of National Unification, seeking to pull their fragmented Nations together into one Nation-State

In Eastern Europe, the Nationalist problem was quite different. There were several dozen small Nations that were subsumed into other countries. The classical example (very relevant for this series) was Austria (or after 1867, Austria-Hungary). Austria-Hungary was technically the union of two separate kingdoms, Austria and Hungary, which were united because the Hapsburg dynasty had inherited the crowns of both states. This state was a multi-National state (in 19th century terms). The western half of Austria was predominantly German, but the eastern half included more than a dozen other National groups, including the Hungarians, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Poles, the Croats, the Serbs, and so on. What Nationalists of each of these different groups wanted was for their Nation to be an independent Nation-State, completely separate from Austrian control. Nationalism was an existential threat to Austria, because if it got a strong foothold there, it would pull Austria apart.

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Map of Austria showing all the major Nations

Nationalism often, though not inevitably, went hand in hand with Liberalism, because Liberalism offered Nationalists tools to potentially achieve their goals with. Rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press meant that Nationalists could spread their ideas freely in the face of governments that opposed them. The establishment of a representative legislature based on a wide franchise would mean that Nationalists could try to achieve National Independence or Unification through democratic methods.

 

The Revolutions of 1848

In 1848, these movements produced a set of upheavals known as the Revolutions of 1848 (also sometimes called the Spring of Nations). Starting in France and eventually breaking out in about 50 different countries, Liberals and Nationalists, among others, agitated for political change. But different segments of the population wanted different things, so the uprisings were not truly coordinated, even within the same country or region. The Revolutions of 1848 were too complicated to explore in detail here, because they played out differently in different countries. So I’ll restrict myself to just Austria and Germany.

In Austria, a group of Viennese university students began a protest in March of the year, demanding an Austrian constitution and a legislature elected by universal manhood suffrage. Emperor Ferdinand I ordered his troops to open fire on the students, killing several and provoking Viennese workers to join the protest in anger over the killings, causing the protest to develop into an armed insurrection.

Ferdinand tried various measures to appease the insurrectionaries. He fired his unpopular chief minister Metternich and ordered the drafting of a constitution in April, but the proposed constitution did not establish a wide franchise and so was rejected. After fleeing Vienna, Ferdinand established an elected legislature.

About the same time this was happened, a Nationalist insurrection broke out in Hungary seeking Hungarian independence. The Nationalists adopted a Liberal agenda known as the 10 Points, which included things such as freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the election of government ministers in parliament, and the abolition of legal and tax privileges for certain classes of people. Eventually Ferdinand sent Austrian troops into Hungary, but they were defeated. This action provoked vehement opposition in Vienna, forcing Ferdinand to abdicate in favor of his nephew Franz Joseph I.

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Franz Joseph late in life

Hungary briefly established a Hungarian Republic led by Regent-President Louis Kosuth, whose forces defeated the Austrians several times over the next year. But in May of 1849, the situation turned in favor of Austria when Czar Nicholas I decided to support Franz Joseph. By August, Austrian and Russian forces had crushed the rebellion and re-established Austrian control over Hungary, bringing an end for a generation to Hungarian Nationalist efforts to achieve independence.

The situation in Germany is messier, because ‘Germany’ wasn’t one country, but rather about 3 dozen countries, most of which saw some form of upheaval. In Prussia, which after Austria was the largest of the German states, protesters took to the streets of Berlin in March, demanding a constitution, parliamentary elections, freedom of the press, and the unification of Germany. King Frederick William IV played for time by agreeing to allow a liberal constitution. establishing an elected assembly, and embracing the principle of German unification. In May, the Prussian National Assembly met for the first time, tasked with drafting a liberal constitution. But then in December, Frederick William dissolved the Assembly, imposed a Conservative constitution that vested most of the power in the hands of the king, and allowed the establishment of a bicameral legislature.

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Frederick William IV

But in May of 1848, the All-German National Assembly convened in Frankfurt am Main with representatives elected from across the German states (including both Austria and Prussia). It was an overwhelmingly middle class and Liberal group of representatives. It drafted a proposed German Constitution and decided to offer the crown of the proposed new German Empire to Frederick William, who had continued to indicate support for the unification of Germany. But Frederick William contemptuously declared that would not receive “a crown from the gutter.” Frederick’s rejection was driven by two things, his hostility to revolution and his staunch belief in the divine right of kings; he refused to accept that a group of people could select their own ruler. Only God could choose rulers, and if people could choose their ruler, logically they could depose him as well. Frederick William’s refusal of the crown spelled the end of the so-called March Revolution across Germany.

That failure, incidentally, caused large numbers of Liberals and Socialists to flee Germany for the United States. A very sizable number of them ultimately came to my home town Milwaukee, making it the most German city outside of Germany for about a century. The heavily German character of Milwaukee was still fairly evident as I was growing up in the 70s, although it’s mostly faded away now. The heavy Socialist presence in the city is the reason Milwauke had three Socialist mayors in the first half of the century and played such an important role in the growth of the American Labor Union movement.

The Revolutions in Fall of Eagles

The first episode, “Death Waltz” opens with a brief narration about the Revolution of 1848 in Austria.

“1848. The Eagle trembled. New and revolutionary forces are suddenly unleashed. Student protests and demonstrations by a starving and resentful population lead to traditional ideas of monarchy and government being questioned throughout Europe. When Hungarian nationalists took to the barricades in Vienna, the young emperor Franz Josef of Austria ordered his troops to crush the rebellion. Men died in their thousands. Hundreds were shot and hundreds were executed and those leaders who escaped were hanged in effigy. As blood ran in the streets of Vienna, the emperor and his court waltzed beneath glittering chandeliers.”

While everything in that passage is technically correct, it omits the point that the protests toppled Emperor Ferdinand. More importantly, it fails to explain what the protestors wanted. There’s no explanation of Liberalism’s primary principles or indeed any mention of Liberalism at all, and no explanation of what the Hungarian nationalists wanted, or that by late in 1848 it was looking as if the Hungarian nationalists were going to win.

As the voiceover ends, we see the domineering Archduchess Sophie (Pamela Brown) discussing the court protocol with Princess Helene of Bavaria, who is supposed to marry the young emperor. But Franz Joseph (Miles Anderson) instead falls deeply in love with Helene’s sister Elisabeth (Diane Keen), defies his mother and marries her. All of this happened in 1854, not 1848 as the episode suggests. (The only clue to this is a flashback that isn’t obviously a flashback, in which Helene and Elisabeth’s tutor refers to the Revolution of 1848 and the Hungarian revolt.) The rest of the episode concentrates on Elisabeth’s rather unhappy marriage with Franz Joseph. Although he loved her deeply, her feelings for him were rather cooler, and she got on very poorly with Sophie, who sought to control her domestic life.

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Keen and Anderson as Elisabeth and Franz Joseph

The episode focuses a fair amount of time on Elisabeth’s growing interest in Hungary and her sympathy with the Hungarian desire for ‘freedom’, as the episode summarizes Hungarian Nationalism. There’s no discussion of the idea of a Hungarian Nation, only that the Hungarians wanted a greater voice in government. The episode asserts that Elisabeth’s dissatisfaction with her personal life made her deeply sympathetic to the Hungarian desire for freedom. One scene touches on one of the underlying issues of Nationalism though. Elisabeth insists on wearing a tiara that mimics a Hungarian style of headdress, which is implicitly a statement of support for the Hungarians, despite Sophie’s efforts to get her to wear something more German. (See the photo above.) The idea that Germans and Hungarians would dress differently because they were different Nations is not explained, so the viewer is left to read between the lines why this tiara is an issue.

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Empress Elisabeth of Austria

(Elisabeth, by the way, was one of the great beauties of 19th century Europe. She spent between 2 and 3 hours a day on her hair, exercised and dieted aggressively, and managed to maintain a 16 inch waist despite three pregancies; later in life she had only a 19 1/2 inch waist. After she turned 33, she refused to sit for any more portraits, so that her image in the public mind would always be one of youth and beauty.)

That the Revolutions of 1848 also played themselves out in Germany is not mentioned directly, although Frederick William’s rejection of the ‘crown from the gutters’ is references in a later episode.

To my mind, failing to explain Liberalism and Nationalism in any direct way is a mistake of the series. While the narrative of the event is clear enough for the viewer, the series doesn’t really explain what the issues driving events were, except in the most basic sense that people wanted self-government.

 

Want to Know More? 

Fall of Eagles is available on Youtube. The series is available through Amazon, but if you decide to buy it, make sure you’re getting a format that will play on your DVD player; some versions only play British and European formats.

Fall of Eagles: First Thoughts

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Apparently my requested reviews of I, Claudius inspired another reader to donate to my Paypal account and request a review of Fall of Eagles, a 1974 BBC miniseries. So my next couple of posts are going to be looking at this sprawling series. 19th century European history is a good ways outside of my wheelhouse—I’m not familiar with the current scholarship on Imperial Germany or Russia, for example—so watching the series was a fun expedition into a period I know less about than I would like. Unfortunately, that also means that I’m less likely to catch serious errors of fact or interpretation. Hopefully I won’t make too many mistakes in my comments.

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Fall of Eagles tells the story of the end of three great empires brought to ruin by the Great War, namely Hapsburg Austria, Hohenzollern Germany, and Romanov Russia (each of which used an eagle in their heraldry hence the title of the series). It starts in 1848 and runs down to 1918, managing to cover about 70 years of history in 13 episodes. Unlike most miniseries, such as I, Claudius, Fall of Eagles is not a continuous narrative but is more like 13 fifty-minute plays that attempt to show the viewer the reasons why World War I was fatal to these three dynasties. Each episode focuses on one of the three states in question. The three Austria episodes are almost entirely self-contained in terms of their cast. The later Germany and Russia episodes do occasionally have some cross-over, with Kaiser Wilhelm II (Barry Foster) appearing in a couple of the Russia episodes. In some cases, the same actor plays a particular character in multiple episodes, while in others, the same person is played at a later stage of life by a different actor. Like I, Claudius, one fun element is spotting famous British actors in these historical roles. Among the bigger names in the series are Michael Gough, Freddie Jones, Gemma Jones, Colin Baker, Patrick Stewart (in a particularly impressive performance as Lenin), John Rhys-Davies, Miriam Margolyes, and Marius Goring. It’s amusing to watch Alfred Pennyworth plot to smuggle Captain Picard and Gimli son of Gloin into Russia to establish the Soviet Union.

One downside to this 13 short plays approach is that the episodes are somewhat inconsistent in their quality. Whereas most episodes of I, Claudius were written by Jack Pulman and therefore had a consistent voice and characterization, most of these episodes were written by different authors, with the result that the episodes veer in their treatment of various characters. Foster’s Wilhelm II is mostly a vain, foolish man given to absurd gestures such as mailing his cousin Nicholas II (Charles Kay) unwanted allegorical paintings, but in the last episode he suddenly becomes much more reflective, insightful, and serious; in some episodes he loves Nicholas, while in others he thinks the Tsar an idiot. In some episodes the Russian city is referred to as St Petersburg, while in others it’s Petrograd. In one of the Austrian episodes, the emperor is consistently referred to as the All-Highest, following the strict court protocols, but in the other episodes, he’s referred to more familiarly.

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Willy loves fancy clothes

The series has a LOT of story to tell, and sometimes struggles to find a way to convey all the necessary information. The series mostly concentrates on the three royal families, but episode 9, “Dress Rehearsal,” rather jarringly focuses on the Russian Foreign Minister Alexander Izvolsky and his meetings with other European foreign ministers as he tries to orchestrate free Russian passage through the Dardanelles. Most of the episodes employ an omniscient third-person narrator (Michael Hordern), who explains developments like riots and battles as the series shows maps, line drawings, photographs, and early film footage. At other times, one of the characters offers in-story narration in the form of letters or diary entries from their point of view. The result is a valiant but not entirely successful mélange of drama, history lecture, and primary source reading that makes the series half-documentary, half-dramatization.

But if you watch the series closely, you realize that each episode shows one or more steps down the road to ruin. For example, episode 7, “Dearest Nicky,” shows how the 1905 Russo-Japanese War revealed Russia’s profound military weakness and how Wilhelm II tried to use the situation to persuade Russia to abandon its alliance with France and Great Britain. The failure of those negotiations meant that Russia remained committed to going to war against Germany even though it was clear that it lacked the resources to do so successfully. “Dress Rehearsal” deals with Austria’s decision to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina, thereby setting up the motive for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (Peter Woodthorpe) in the next episode, and Izvolsky’s failed maneuverings reveal just how politically incompetent Russian leadership was by this point. So unlike most historical series, this one is actually intent on teaching the viewer something about the past more than just telling an entertaining story.

Another problem with the series is that it wasn’t willing to directly depict violence, even when that violence was integral to the story. Episode 4, “Requiem for a Crown Prince,” opens with the discovery that the Emperor’s son and heir has just committed suicide and closes with the narrator basically saying “Oh, by the way, the empress was assassinated a few years later.” Episode 10, “Indian Summer of an Emperor” culminates in the assassination of the Austrian Archduke, but the whole incident is simply described by someone rather than shown. In the next episode, “Tell the King the Sky is Falling” Grigory Rasputin (Michael Aldridge) is shown becoming an enormous problem for the Tsar’s government, undermining every attempt to solve the empire’s political problems. The next episode starts with the narrator essentially telling us “Rasputin was murdered and thrown into a river.” The whole effect is to somewhat obscure key moments in the narrative by shoving them off-screen. The fate of the Romanovs is only obliquely described by the German empress, leaving the viewer entirely in the dark as to why they were executed. Obviously, standards for violence on television were quite different in the 70s than they are today, but they could easily have shown scenes leading up to the violence and then cut away.

The series offers some fine performances. In addition to Stewart’s excellent turn as Lenin, there’s Foster’s pompous Wilhelm II, Gemma Jones’ bitter Empress Victoria of Germany, Rachel Gurney’s grieving Empress Elisabeth of Austria, and Gayle Hunnicutt’s increasingly neurotic Empress Alexandra. Kay manages to make Nicholas II simultaneously ineffectual and sympathetic, which is no easy feat.

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The doomed couple

Overall, Fall of Eagles is not as good as I, Claudius, and in some ways it feels a bit like a dry run for the more successful BBC series that came the next year. But as a historical series that actually tried to educate its viewers, it’s an impressive experiment, though one that was never repeated (to the best of my knowledge).

As noted, this is a requested review. If there is a movie or tv show you would like me to review, please make a generous donation to my Paypal account and let me know what you would like me to review. If I can get access to it (and think it’s appropriate for this blog), I’ll review it. Just don’t make me review Empire again.

 

Want to Know More? 

Fall of Eagles is available on Youtube. The series is available through Amazon, but if you decide to buy it, make sure you’re getting a format that will play on your DVD player; some versions only play British and European formats.

Wonder Woman: Just a Few Thoughts

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I saw Wonder Woman last week. I loved it, despite a rather plebian third act that was, frankly, boring and generic. Patty Jenkins brought plenty of feminist elements to what might otherwise have been a rather weak Zach Snyder script. I thought I would offer just a thought or two about things that particularly connected to this blog’s purpose, namely history.

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Spoiler AlertIf you’re one of the few people in the country who hasn’t seen the movie yet, you may want to put off reading this until you do, because I discuss a couple major plot points.

 

Wonder Woman and WWII

When I heard that the movie would be set during the Great War (World War I) instead of World War II, I was puzzled. Wonder Woman is in origin a World War II character. She debuted in 1941, and was to some extent a nod to the role women had taken in the US Armed Forces during the war. While women did not hold combat positions, they played a range of important roles during the war. WACs, WAVEs, WASPs, SPARs, Marine Corps Women’s Reserve members, and others served in a wide range of roles, including typists, secretaries, nurses, air traffic controllers, weather forecasters, interrogators, intelligence interpretaters, drivers, mechanics, and even pilots. By 1945, there were more than 100,000 American women in uniform, with 6,000 of them being officers. Several dozen US servicewomen died during the war and others became POWs, and many received Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars, and other medals. So a female superhero was an obvious choice for a time when women were demonstrating their ability to directly contribute to the US war effort.

Wonder Woman’s origin involves an American pilot, Steve Trevor, crashing his plane near Paradise Island (later renamed Themiscyra). Although the comic never definitely stated where Paradise Island was located, it was broadly hinted that it is somewhere in the Pacific Ocean (although how Greek Amazons got to the Pacific Ocean was not explained). A location in the Pacific makes sense, since the US probably had a larger Air Force presence in the Pacific theater than the European theater and because Paradise Island was located a long way from civilization; it’s unlikely a solo American pilot in Europe could be a long way from civilization.

Wonder Woman’s original costume strongly emphasized her specifically American identity. Her costume is red, white, and blue; she has an eagle on her bustier; and her skirt is blue with white five-pointed starts.

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Note her costume

 

In the early comics, she frequently fought Nazis and Japanese, as most superheroes did. Her first recurring villain was the German spy and saboteur Baroness Paula von Gunther. The villainous Dr. Poison was revealed to be a Japanese princess. Other Nazi opponents included Mavis and Gundra the Valkyrie. The Duke of Deception turned out to be the driving force behind Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, as well as Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union. In the 4th issue of Wonder Woman (April-May 1943), she led a group of marines in an attack on the Japanese, and for a while her battle cry was “Keep ’em flying”, a common WWII slogan.

 

Why the Great War? 

So initially I was really puzzled why the decision was made to push Wonder Woman’s origin back two decades and have her involved in the Great War instead. On the surface, it’s a little forced. The film has to contort things a bit in order to make the American Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) be able to crash on Themiscyra, given that the Americans only got into the war comparatively late, in April of 1917. Trevor must be a damn good spy to be able to fake being a German flying ace and sneak into a secret munitions base in modern Turkey. Apparently in this film, Themiscyra is located in the eastern Mediterranean (which makes more sense in terms of the Amazon origin story, but not in terms of comics history).

But very soon after Diana (Gal Gadot) and Trevor get to Britain, I realized that transplanting Wonder Woman to the Great War actually makes good sense. Diana’s mission is to put an end to the whole idea of war by locating the god Ares and killing him. The idea of killing the very concept of war echoes the post-war notion that the Great War was the War to End All War, a war so awful it would teach people not to wage war. That makes Diana essentially the incarnation of this optimistic approach to the horrors of the war, and her essential optimism starts to seem both realistic and impossibly idealistic at the same time. Faced with the horrors of the Great War, how could she not want to end warfare once and for all, but how can she possibly accomplish such a huge goal?

The film positions her in a remarkably complex war that ought to serve as a good foil for her goals and idealism, because it is hard to say who were really the good guys and bad guys in this war, as opposed to just who were the winners and losers. As has been pointed out, however, the film betrays this approach by making it clear that the Germans really are the bad guys, since they’re willing to embrace Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) and her murderous super-weapon, and Gen. Ludendorff (Danny Huston) is willing to negotiate an armistice in bad faith, while the British are sincere in their desire for peace.

 

General Ludendorff

Erich Ludendorff was a smart choice to serve as a major protagonist for a heroine who wants to end all war, because he was one of the most militaristic of German generals during the Great War. He was a brilliant general. He was an advocate for ‘total war’ in which the German military essentially took control of much of the German government and geared Germany’s economy toward the waging of war. Although he never completely accomplished that during the war, his approach still helped drive the collapse of the German economy by the end of the war. He pressured Kaiser Wilhelm II into permitted unrestricted submarine warfare against Britain, ignoring the warnings that sinking US ships might bring the US in to the war against Germany, which in fact happened after the sinking of the Lusitania. When an armistice was proposed in 1918, he advocated for using it to quickly rebuild and then launch a renewed attack on France. This was a man who truly was committed to warfare and so he makes a plausible candidate for the mortal incarnation of the God of War. And he was in Belgium in 1918, which is when the film has to be set.

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Gen. Erich Ludendorff

However, he didn’t slaughter the rest of the German High Command, and he wasn’t killed in the waning months of the war. He survived the war, opposing the German surrender because he refused to accept that the German army could possibly be defeated; he denied reports that German army units were refusing to obey direct orders. He was suffering from severe sleep deprivation, which may account for his growing fanaticism at the end of the war. He was briefly exiled, but returned to Germany in 1919. After the war, as he began to be blamed for the failure of the war and the collapse of the German economy, he resorted to promoting the theory that the real reason for the German defeat was the ‘Stab in the Back’, the notion that the German army and government had been betrayed by unrecognized traitors in their midst. He blamed the Stab in the Back on German Jews, thereby helping promote the anti-Semitism that became such a major element of Hitler’s ideology. And he was an early supporter of Hitler, although he began to become disillusioned with the man during the 30s. He died in 1937 from liver cancer, not a sword through the chest.

 

Want to Know More?

Wonder Woman is still in the theaters, so it’s not available for home viewing yet. But you should read about Wonder Woman’s history, because it’s really interesting. Her creator, William Moulton Marston, lived a very…non-traditional life, and is credited with helping invent the lie detector (the Lasso of Truth…). He was a bondage fetishist, a female supremacist, and had a polyamorous marriage long before that was a thing. So take a look at Jill Lapore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman.

The Last King: Norwegians on Skis

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The Last King (aka Bierkebienerne, 2016, dir. Nils Gaup, Norwegian dubbed into English) tells a story famous among Norwegians but probably obscure to most other people of how two farmers saved the life of an infant king by taking him on a cross-country ski trip. But it doesn’t tell the story well. Or accurately.

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The Norwegian Civil Wars

The period in Norwegian history from 1130 to 1240 is generally called the Norwegian Civil Wars because of a series of succession disputes. During these conflicts, two major factions emerged, the Baglars and the Birkebeiners. The Baglers were the faction of the aristocrats and the clergy, broadly speaking, while the Birkebeiners were essentially peasants and landless men who supported the power of the crown as a check on the aristocracy and clergy. There was also a geographic dimension to this struggle, with the Baglers dominating the southeast and the Birkebeiners dominating the west of Norway, especially around Trondheim. (The term ‘Birkebeiner’, incidentally, originated as a slur against them. It means ‘birch leggers’ and derives from Bagler claims that their opposition was so poor that they had to tie birch bark around their legs as clothing. In contrast, ‘Bagler’ refers to a bishop’s crozier, designating them as the party with ecclesiastical support.)

In 1177, Sverre assumed leadership of the Birkebeiners, married Margaret Eriksdottir, the daughter of the Swedish king, and reformed the Birkebeiners, purging the movement of its early criminal element. In 1184, he became king of Norway, but in 1194 he was excommunicated during a dispute with Church officials, which provoked another round of civil war. When he died in 1202, he was succeeded by his illegitimate son Haakon III, who got on poorly with his father’s wife. Margaret attempted to return to Sweden with her daughter Kristin, but Haakon prevented this. At Christmas in 1203, Haakon fell ill after undergoing a bloodletting, and died on New Years Day, 1204. Margaret was accused of having poisoned him, and one of her men underwent a trial by ordeal to prove her innocence. He failed, and she was forced to flee to Sweden without Kristen.

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King Sverre

The unmarried Haakon was succeeded by his 5-year old nephew Guttorm, but the boy died in August of the same year. By this time, the Birkebeiners were politically ascendant, which alienated the Baglers, who put forward Erling Steinvegg, a supposed son of Sverre’s predecessor as king, with the support of the king of Denmark. The Birkebeiners favored Inge II Baardsson, the jarl of Trondelag. A low-level civil war ensued, which Inge essentially won by outliving Steinvegg in 1206, but the Baglers put forward another candidate and conflict continued.

However by 1206, it had became known that Haakon III had had an illegitimate child, Haakon, by a woman named Inga of Varteig. Inga was living in Bagler-controlled territory in the southeast of Norway, so when the Baglers starting hunting for her baby, a group of Birkebeiners fled with Inga and Haakon in the middle of winter, trying to reach King Inge in Nidaros (modern Trondheim). The party became snowed in, so two of the best skiers in the group, Torstein Skevla and Skjervald Skrukka, took the young boy and skied over the mountains from Lillehammer to Osterdalen and eventually got to Nidaros, where Inge took charge of the boy and raised him. The Baglers’ new candidate, Philip Simonsson, reached a deal with Inge in which Philip was given the eastern third of Norway to rule, but as a jarl rather than a king. He also married Kristin Sverresdottir.

Eventually, in 1217, when first Inge and then Philip died, the 13-year old Haakon emerged as one candidate in a four-way contest that also included Inge’s illegitimate son, Inge’s half-brother Jarl Skule, and a fourth candidate. Haakon had widespread support, especially after his mother Inga successfully underwent an ordeal to prove his paternity. Ultimately, Skule was made regent for the boy and given Philip’s portion of the kingdom, which he held onto until 1239. After years of resisting Haakon’s adult rule, he went into open rebellion, but Haakon’s men burned down the monastery he was in, killing him and ending Norway’s civil wars. Haakon emerged as a powerful king who played important role in German politics. He helped import broader European culture into Norway and his reign, down to his death in 1263, is often called Norway’s Golden Age.

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Haakon IV

The perilous trip by Skevla and Skrukka was memorialized in the early 20th century with a cross-country ski race in Norway, and today there are no fewer than 5 Birkebeiner races, including three in Norway, one in Canada, and one in my home state of Wisconsin, with the American Birkebeiner being reportedly the largest cross-country ski race in the world.

The Last King

The Last King focuses entirely on the brief moment when the young Haakon’s life was in overt danger. The incident of the daring flight on skis is justly famous in Norway, so it makes sense to build a film around it. After a brief opening in which Skjervald (‘SHARE-vald’) Skrukka (Jakob Oftebro) is established as a simple farmer with a wife and child, the film focuses on political machinations, but sort of assumes the audience will understand who the characters are, so it does a rather poor job of explaining who people are.

Gisle (Paal Sverre Hagen) is the younger brother of Inge Baardson (Thorbjorn Harr). This character is a messy mix of Philip Simonsson and Jarl Skule, whose only clear motive is that Inge has always ignored him. Gisle is having an affair with the widowed Queen Margaret and hatches a plan with her to poison Haakon III. Her motive for participating in this is unclear, since the plan requires her to immediately flee home to Sweden while leaving her beloved daughter Kristin (Thea Sofie Loch Naess) in Nidaros, even though the plan is to somehow implicate Inge as the poisoner, based on the fact that he’s the ‘obvious’ person to want to kill Haakon. So when Haakon dies from Margaret’s poison, Gisle immediately orders Inge’s arrest.

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Tom Green wasn’t available to play Gisle


The film establishes that there is a rift between the Baglers and the Birkebeiners and that it has something to do with the Baglars being allied to the Church and the Birkebeiners being the farmers, but it’s all very muddy. The Baglers are apparently based in the royal palace at Nidaros instead of in eastern Norway, but almost everyone else in Nidaros seems to be a Birkebeiner, including the chancellor of Norway. The fact that Gisle is apparently a Bagler while his brother is a Birkebeiner never seems to make anyone suspect that maybe Gisle is the bad guy here.

As he’s dying Haakon tells his men that he has an illegitimate young son in eastern Norway. Gisle announces that they want to rescue the previously unknown boy and bring him to Nidaros, while the villainous bishop of Nidaros, who is never given a name, declares that now is the time to end the rule of kings and let the Church rule everything, which Gisle seems to agree with, even though it would mean that he won’t get to become king. So the Bagler soldiers are given orders to kill the boy that Gisle has just announced needs to be rescued. Like I said, it’s all very messy, but it establishes the basic plot of the film, which is that the Birkebeiners need to save baby Haakon from the ruthless and nameless Bagler soldiers trying to kill him.

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Inga and baby Haakon

The soldiers come to Skjervald’s farm, somehow knowing that he knows where the baby is, and they get the information out of him by threatening to kill his wife and son. After he tells them, naturally they kill the wife and son anyway because that gives Skjervald some manpain and a motive to hate the soldiers. He escapes by slapping on a pair of skis and eluding the soldiers long enough to get to the farm where Inga of Varteig (Ane Ulmoen Overli), her son (who seems to be about 6 months old), and Torstein Skelva (Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju) are staying. But the evil soldiers show up right behind him and massacre everyone except Inga, who inexplicably survives, while Skjervald and Torstein flee on skis carrying the baby.

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Skjervald, Haakon, and Torstein

This is the best part of the film. There’s some gorgeous camera work in the majestic Norwegian landscape, and the idea of an extended chase scene on skis feels pretty fresh. Our two heroes are clearly the better skiers, but the fact that there’s a blizzard setting in cranks up the tension. But the film falls into a pattern in which every time Skjervald and Torstein get to safety, the bad guys show up right behind them (apart from a brief break for sleep and character development), and somehow when they get to the next farm, Inga has magically gotten there first. Her sleigh-driver must be pretty damn good.

Meanwhile, there’s a really dreary sub-plot about Gisle wanting to marry Kristin. It keeps popping up to interrupt the main plot and theoretically provide some tension, but it’s hard to care very much about any of the people involved since their motives are undeveloped. It’s never even established that if Gisle marries her, it will give him a claim to become king.

Eventually, Skjervald and Torstein raise a small band of Birkebeiner fighters and decide to ambush the pursuing soldiers with a team of crack ski commandos. While sort of an interesting scene, it devolves into a highly improbable chase scene in which Inga’s sleigh is being pursued by the leader of the Bagler soldiers on horseback, while a trio of riderless horses pursue him, towing a wounded Skjervald behind them on his skis as he tries to kill the leader with an arrow. The horses rather improbably just keep running after the leader at full gallop for what seems like a mile or more without slowing down or veering off into the trees.

Ultimately, Skjervald saves Inga and the baby by killing the leader but dies in the process. Torstein gets the baby (who now seems to be at least two years old—I guess it was a really long chase) to Nidaros just in time to stop the villainous bishop from marrying the distraught Kristin to the villainous Gisle more or less over the corpse of the unwitting chancellor. Gisle, following the tradition of bland, uninteresting villains everywhere, just gives up without a fight.

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Mawiage is what brings us togethew today

Inge is released from the dungeon and declares that he will ‘guard the throne’ until Haakon is old enough to rule. As the epilogue text tells us, “In 1217, 13-year-old Haakon Haakonsson took over the throne from Inge Baardsson and held it for 46 years. During his reign, there was peace in Norway.” That’s quite a simplification of what actually happened, but right in line with the film’s approach to the facts.

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Want to Know More? 

The Last King is available on Amazon.

So far as I know, there isn’t a good English-language book on the Birkebeiners’ famous escape on skis, but there is a really charming children’s book about the incident, Lise Lunge-Larsen’s The Race of the BirkebeinersIt’s never too early to get your children hooked on medieval history. It tells the story much better than this movie does.

If you’re looking to learn more about Norwegian history (and Scandinavian history in general), I strongly recommend T. K. Derry’s A History of Scandinavia, which covers all of Scandinavian history in about 450 pages. It’s a very good intro to the subject. There’s also Birget and Peter Sawyer’s excellent Medieval Scandinavia.



Empire: The Battle of Mutina

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I hate Empire with a surprising passion. I want nothing better than to forget the 6 hours I spent watching it, but somehow I just can’t seem to stop writing about this turd, sort of the way I couldn’t stop picking at a wart that I once had on my right hand, even though picking at it hurt in a bad way. The worst thing ever filmed about ancient Rome culminates in the Battle of Mutina, a very odd choice, but no odder than the other shit that gets dropped into this film.

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The Battle of Mutina

Historically, the Battle of Mutina was a fairly minor conflict, usually barely even mentioned in modern histories of the Late Republic. In 43 BC, the negotiations between the Senate and Mark Antony broke down. Antony insisted on being given a 5-year governorship in Gaul, the way Caesar had before him. Gaul was close enough that Antony could swoop down into Italy if he disliked what was happening in Rome. But the post had already been given to Decimus Junius Brutus, one of Caesar’s assassins. So Antony laid siege to Decimus in Mutina (modern Modena). The two consuls, Pansa and Hirtius, and Octavian all hurried north with forces to break the siege. Antony’s army ran into Pansa’s forces and routed them, mortally wounding Pansa in the process, but then retreated as Hirtius’ troops showed up.

The two sides clashed again somewhere outside Mutina. The battle doesn’t seem to be well-enough documented to enable a full reconstruction of it, but it went poorly for Antony. Hirtius’ forces were able to attack Antony’s camp, but Hirtius was killed in the assault. Octavian performed well in the battle; when the standard-bearer was killed, Octavian took it up and carried it for an extended period. After the battle, the Republic was now without consuls. Decimus tried to take control of the troops, but Octavian refused to surrender control over them. So Decimus tried to flee to Macedonia where Brutus and Cassius were gathering troops, but he was caught and executed. Mutina helped establish Octavian as a major leader, despite being only 19, and created the conditions that forced Antony to make common cause with him against the Liberators. But it wasn’t the end of the struggle between Antony and Octavian by a long shot, since Octavian only finally defeated Antony at Actium in 31 BC, 12 years later.

 

Empire’s Version of Mutina

I was saddened to discover that instead of shelling out a couple of bucks for the DVD of this wretched miniseries, I could have just watched it on Youtube. But it does mean that you can have the pleasure of watching this shitty battle scene for yourself.

The set-up for the battle is all wrong. Pansa and Hirtius are nowhere around, having already been executed by Mark Antony (Vincent Regan), and poor Decimus isn’t even a character in the story. Instead, Antony has become a vicious tyrant in Rome and Octavius (Santiago Cabrera) has run off to Gaul and found Julius Caesar’s legendary 3rd Legion sitting around in Gaul for the past two decades. He’s persuaded them to fight. But they’re (of course) badly outnumbered; they’re just the remnant of the 3rd Legion and 20 years older than before, while Antony has six legions. (But don’t worry; being outnumbered never has any impact on the battle whatsoever.) Antony is accompanied by General Rapax (Graham McTavish) and Tyrannus (Jonathan Cake), while Octavius has Marcus Agrippa (Chris Egan) with him. None of that makes any sense whatsoever, but you shouldn’t be surprised by that at this point.

The clip opens with Antony and Rapax on horseback. Rapax is so bad a bad guy that they’ve given him black armor, while Antony is proving he’s a bad guy by ordering Rapax to kill people during a battle. Antony’s armor has at least a vague resemblance to what actual Roman soldiers wore in this period (although he’s not wearing a helmet), while Rapax’s armor is just silly. But it’s positively museum-grade compared to the nonsense that Octavius and his forces are wearing, which is just a mishmash of generic crap armor.

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I couldn’t find any pics from the Battle of Mutina, so here’s how a much better show dressed their Roman soldiers

The battle takes place in a forest. While we don’t really know much about the topography of the real battle, it’s pretty damn unlikely it was fought in a forest, because forests are lousy places to fight pitched battles. The trees and uneven terrain make keeping a solid formation nearly impossible, and loss of formation was typically deadly to Roman troops. Since both sides are Roman soldiers, they ought to be drawn up in very tight ranks, shoulder to shoulder, with multiple ranks standing behind the front line. The men on both sides ought to be carrying scuti, curved rectangular shields that cover much of the body, and gladii, short swords. Some of Antony’s troops are equipped roughly the way they ought to be, but are not in proper formation. Octavius’ troops, however, are just milling around in disorganized clumps, and are carrying anachronistic small round shields.

Antony’s forces come running through the trees in a disorganized mess, some of them on horseback. In this period, cavalry was usually kept on the wings of the army, used to make flanking attacks and to prevent the opponent from maneuvering on the field. Octavian responds by ordering his men to do an all-out charge (when in reality Roman advances were done at a slow run so as not to lose formation). Octavius’ archers then begin firing into the melee, presumably killing and wounding men on both sides. So we’ve established that no one involved in the production of this miniseries knew a damn thing about Roman warfare, or in fact warfare at all.

The battle is depicted as having no formation or structure at all, with individual pairs of combatants scattered around the battlefield, and troops from both sides coming in from both sides of the screen. After killing someone, the surviving combatant then looks around for another person to attack. So each man is fighting without any support from his fellow soldiers, and can easily be attacked from behind. Antony fights from horseback with a gladius, a really dumb thing to do, because on horseback a gladius isn’t long enough to reach foot soldiers. None of the principle characters wear helmets, obviously because the viewer has to be able to identify them. Normally I can accept that convention, but here, surrounded by so much egregious stupidity, it just looks moronic.

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Vincent Regan makes a habit of appearing in things I violently dislike

 

Then at the 1:47 mark, Agrippa tells Octavius “they’re rolling over us.” Octavius’ response is to shout “hold the line!” This is stupid for two reasons. 1) It amounts to shouting “fight harder!”, which probably isn’t helpful battlefield advice to beleaguered troops, who are probably fighting as hard as they can not to die. 2) More importantly, THERE ISN’T A LINE TO HOLD, YOU IDIOT! YOU SENT THEM INTO BATTLE WITH NO FORMATION! ‘Hold the line’ means ‘keep in formation.’

Then Tyrannus, using his patented Badass Two-Gladius Fighting technique kills someone who says “Hail, Caesar,” like that means something, and Tyrannus realizes he’s fighting on the wrong side and decides to start killing Antony’s men, and his soldiers decide to switch sides too, becauase they’re none too keen to be fighting under a general named Rapax, I guess, because when you work for someone whose name is the ancient equivalent of Johnny McPsychopathicKiller, you probably start of suspect he’s a bad guy and you might be on the wrong side.

Rapax is just about to kill Agrippa when Tyrannus distracts Rapax by throwing one of his swords at him. In general, while throwing swords looks cool in movies, disarming yourself is a really dumb thing to do when you’re surrounded by guys who want to kill you. Then Tyrannus says “we who are about to die, salute you,” as he kills Rapax, because that sounds really cool and sort of clever if you don’t bother to think about it at all.

Then Antony meets Octavius and they fight. Despite the fact that Antony is obviously a much better fighter than Octavius, Octavius disarms him and forces him to surrender, but chooses to be merciful and not kill Antony. Historically, it’s correct that Antony survived the battle, because, as I explained last time, the two of them created an alliance and ruled the Empire jointly for several years before having their final falling out and fighting and Octavian winning and Antony committing suicide. But the miniseries presents Mutina as the end of the whole conflict, and suggests that Octavian became ‘Caesar’, by which it means emperor, in 44 BC, rather than in 31 BC. So not killing the deranged guy whose gone on a murder spree looks pretty dimwitted because what’s to stop him from throwing more orgies and trying to kill you with asps again? Still, the thought that they might have tried to cover the next 12 years of history and add a couple extra hours to this shitstain of a miniseries makes glad that everyone involved just threw up their hands and called it quits after Mutina.

I feel like a need an exorcism to get this thing out of my head.

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This Klingon Beauty Queen is much more authentic than anything in this miniseries

This set of reviews was paid for by Victor, who viciously  generously donated to my Paypal account and asked me to review Empire. So, umm, thanks, Victor. I think. If you want me to review a movie or show, please make a donation to my account and tell me what you’d like me to review, but please, make it something a little better than Empire, because I don’t know if I can handle another one like that. Assuming I can get access to the film or series, I’ll do a review.

 

 

Empire: What the Hell is Going On?

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Watching Empire has made me reflect on all the poor life choices that brought me to this moment. If I had decided to study accounting rather than history, I doubt that I would have hit such a bottom watching this wretched ABC mini-series. Still, history only moves in one direction, so I guess I have no choice but to keep going with my review.

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The biggest problem with this mini-series is the plot, which lurches around like a bus whose driver is having a seizure, taking out pedestrians, street signs and the occasional parked car before careening off a cliff and exploding in a huge burst of suckage. But in order to explain what is wrong, we need to take a fairly long detour into the actual past.

 

The Late Republic

By the 2nd century BC, the Roman economy was undergoing significant change, as large numbers of slaves flooded into Italy as a result of Roman victories during the Punic Wars and its slow expansion around the Mediterranean. These slaves forced the value of labor sharply downward and helped force large numbers of citizen farmers off their farms. These displaced farmers tended to do one of two things. Many entered the Roman military, an honorable activity that helped further the expansion of the Empire, which increased the numbers of slaves and perpetuated the forces that were forcing farmers off their land. After a successful military campaign, these men hoped to receive a grant of land in the conquered region, enabling them to return to the ranks of the farmers. But that required someone to enact a specific law granting those soldiers land, and the most logical person to press for that was their general, who used his successful conquest as a stepping stone to high political office. As a result, the military became deeply politicized, with the soldiers viewing their general, rather than the Roman state as a whole, as the natural focus of their loyalty.

The other thing those displaced farmers tended to do was migrate to the cities, especially Rome, in search of employment. But because the growth of slavery had forced down the value of work, most fell into severe poverty, and so Rome developed large slums. Although these men were poor, they could do two things. They could riot, thereby destabilizing Roman politics in unpredictable ways, and they could vote.

These changes caused the development of two new political factions (too loosely-structured to be political parties). One faction, the Optimates or ‘best men’, were traditionalists who appealed to those who were uneasy with the changes taking place. They championed the traditional center of Roman government, the Senate and the consuls, and targeted their political appeal at the aristocratic elites. The other faction, the Populares or ‘men of the people’, were aristocrats who sought political support among the large crowd urban poor, who had emerged as a new factor in Roman politics. They championed the Tribunate, essentially a second parallel branch of Roman government that possessed many (though not all) of the powers of the consuls and who were traditionally much more responsive to the will of the general population. They promised various reforms designed to please the crowd, such as redistribution of land, the distribution of subsidized grain (perhaps the first welfare measure in Western history), and free entertainment in the form of gladiatorial games and other sports. While the Optimates emphasized tradition and the Populares invokes the rights of the people, both groups  were essentially ambitious politicians seeking to advance their own power.

Starting in 133 BC, the conflict between these two factions gradually tore the Republican system to shreds. Over the course of the next century, civil war became a regular problem, as ambitious generals used their armies to pursue political victory through military conflict. Assassinations, conspiracies, judicial murders and political purges, and the wholesale violation of the legal framework for politics left Rome at the mercy of whichever faction could achieve temporary dominance.

Finally, in 48 BC, Julius Caesar, the leading Popularis of his generation, defeated the last great leader of the Optimates, Pompey the Great. This left him the unchallenged politician at Rome, and he immediately set about establish political dominance. The Senate was forced to declare him Dictator in Perpetuity, essentially giving him a higher political power than anyone else, using an office that was supposed to be used only in times of crisis and which theoretically had a term limit of 6 months. Normally, the Senate would debate an issue and then give the consuls a recommendation for the consul to issue a law. But Caesar would announce an issue to the Senate, skip the debate, and just issue laws. He repeatedly made clear that he felt no respect for the Senate, and his actions, including accepting deification, strongly suggested that he intended to overthrow the Republican system entirely and establish a new monarchy.

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A coin of Julius Caesar

Many of the last remaining Optimates joined with some of Caesar’s closest friends who were troubled by the direction he was taken, and formed a conspiracy to murder him. This group was led by Gaius Cassius Longinus, Decimus Junius Brutus, and his more famous relative, Marcus Junius Brutus (the guy everyone refers to as ‘Brutus’; I’ll call the less-famous one Decimus). These men considered Caesar to be a tyrant who was oppressing Rome and therefore called themselves the Liberators, determined to restore freedom to Rome.

On March 15, 44 BC, a group of about 40 men stabbed Caesar to death in the Senate house. They were in such a frenzy that several of them wounded each other in the process. The rest of the Senate fled in panic, and Brutus marched to the Capitol, declaring that he had liberated Rome. But he and the other Liberators, who had expected to receive a hero’s welcome, were shocked by the hostile reception. As aristocrats who feared being closed out of political power, they had failed to realize just how popular Caesar was with the Roman crowd. As rumors began to spread about what had happened, many Romans barricaded themselves in their houses.

Marcus Antonius, Caesar’s right-hand man, had been slowly drifting away from Caesar for a while, but seized on this opportunity to grab at the reins of power. He negotiated with the Senate and conceded an amnesty to Caesar’s killers, but at the price of their legitimizing all of Caesar’s decrees and appointments. As the crowd became angry, the Senate fearfully voted to declare Caesar a god in an effort to appease them. Brutus gave a speech denouncing Caesar as a tyrant, and for a moment, it seemed that the crowd might be mollified.

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Marcus Junius Brutus

But then Caesar’s will was read out. It did three things. 1) It named his grand-nephew Octavius as the heir to his vast fortune and adopted him. 2) It named Decimus as the alternative heir if Octavius was dead. 3) It granted every male citizen in Rome a modest cash gift. (The fact that Caesar could afford to do that and still leave his heir the richest man in Rome demonstrates just how staggeringly rich he was.) These three points all mattered. The first point made it clear that Antonius was not the unchallengable successor to Caesar’s position. The second point made Decimus’ participation in Caesar’s death an impious patricide. The third point reminded the crowd of Caesar’s past gestures to them, which tipped the balance against Brutus’ denunciation of Caesar.

Violence erupted. The Senate house was burned and an unfortunate tribune, mistaken for one of the Liberators, was torn to pieces in the streets. The Liberators fled Rome and Cassius and Brutus seized control of the Eastern Mediterranean portions of the Empire, raising legions for what became a renewed civil war, the Liberators’ War.

Back in Rome, Antonius made common cause with Octavian and Caesar’s cavalry general, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, forming the Second Triumvirate, to which the Senate cravenly turned over complete control of the government. Antony married Octavian’s sister, Octavia. To secure control of Italy, they enacted a brutal purge, the most notable victim of which was the great orator Cicero, Antonius’ personal enemy, whose head and hands were cut off and displayed publicly in Rome.

In 42 BC, the two sides clashed at Philippi in Greece, in two battles about three weeks apart. The Triumvirs won both battles; after the first Cassius committed suicide and after the second, Brutus did so as well. This battle is essentially the end of the Optimates as a group with any meaningful power in Rome.

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A coin issued by Cassius, celebrating Liberty

As a result of their victory, the Triumvirs divided the Empire into thirds and ruled as dictators. In 36 BC, Lepidus and Octavian quarreled, Octavian got the upper hand, and forced Lepidus into domestic exile. Meanwhile, Antony had taken up with Caesar’s ex-girlfriend Cleopatra. He repudiated his marriage to Octavia and married Cleopatra, which triggered the final falling out with Octavian and the last civil war of the Republican period. In 31 BC, Octavian’s forces defeated Antony and Cleopatra at Actium and they both committed suicide, leaving Octavian the undisputed master of the Roman world.

Meanwhile, in Bizarro Land

In theory, this is the story Empire is telling, but any resemblance to historical facts is entirely coincidental. At the start of the series, Caesar (Colm Feore) is the dominant man in Rome, but there’s no mention of the civil war with Pompey or the fact that he’s a perpetual dictator who just runs roughshod over everyone else. The Optimates/Populares rift is reduced to ‘everyone likes Caesar except the Senate.’ which is mostly just Cassius (Michael Maloney) and Brutus (James Frain). Caesar has some sort of formal position, but he’s not a dictator, and it’s not clear what his position is, except that his title is apparently ‘Caesar’ (which is at least a half-century too early for it to function as a title instead of just a family name).

Brutus and Cassius assassinate Caesar in order to restore the Republic from Caesar’s domination, but the show bizarrely presents this as a terrible thing, because Caesar loves the people and isn’t doing anything for himself and instead is doing everything for the people. Early in the first episode, Cassius sniffs that Caesar wants to make himself a king and a god, but it’s already clear that Cassius is an envious jerk, so the show explicitly positions the Republic as a bad thing that apparently involves the Senate running things, while the dictator Caesar is positioned as the defender of democracy.

Caesar’s life and death have been read for centuries as a cautionary tale. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar can be read as a warning against overweening ambition, while ever since the American and French Revolution, his story has been seen as a warning about how Republics succumb to tyranny. So the miniseries’ treatment of the material is startling in the nakedness of its anti-democratic stance.

Once you get beyond that, you realize that the show has no idea how Roman government actually worked. The Senate seems to be in charge, but never actually does anything, and I suspect the show thinks that people got elected directly to the Senate, rather than entering the Senate for life after being elected to almost any other public office; Caesar at one point comments that he “used to be in the Senate.” There are two consuls appointed after Caesar’s murder, Hirtius and Panza (which is actually historically correct), but they barely have any dialog and are only seen again toward the end of the series when Mark Antony (Vincent Regan) executes them for no apparent reason except to be evil. The Vestal ‘Order’ (‘college’ would be a more appropriate term) is described as having great political power but being studiously neutral until Camane (a horribly wasted Emily Blunt) decides to use their resources to duplicate Caesar’s will so everyone will know that  Octavius (Santiago Cabrera) is the rightful successor. The Senate has no soldiers of its own and has to make due by hiring gladiators, while various senators seem to own their legions.

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You don’t pin a toga, you idiot!

Despite not having any troops, and despite everyone in the city hating them after Caesar’s murder, Brutus and Cassius somehow are in complete control of the city, enough so that Octavius, Tyrranus (Jonathan Cake), and Mark Antony have to flee Rome in danger of their lives and ride around trying unsuccessfully to find military allies. But later, Antony has enough soldiers to be back in the city bargaining with the Senate. He and Octavius sign a document making each other their heirs, and then he massacres all his guests at an orgy by dropping asps and wolves on them. And because of Octavius is out of the way, Mark Antony gets to be…Caesar? Something like that.

With Octavius seemingly gone from the scene, Mark Antony wastes no time in going insane and taking power. He exiles Brutus and Cassius from the city as a way to prevent Brutus from committing suicide and becoming “a martyr for Rome”. Leaving aside the fact that martyrdom was a Christian concept and there won’t be any Christians in Rome for more than half a century, exiling someone to stop them from committing suicide makes no sense whatever. Cassius comments, “we should be in Syria raising an army.” Yes, Cassius, you should be, because that’s what you actually did. But after that Brutus and Cassius mostly just disappear from the series. Not only does it make no sense logically or historically, but also it’s feeble scriptwriting to set up Brutus and Cassius as major villains and then simply hand-wave them away so the plot can focus on the struggle between Octavius and Antony. There’s no Liberators’ War or battle of Philippi, just the plot forgetting about them.

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Antony and Octavian in front of bust of Caesar that looks nothing like Colm Feore

Octavius survives the poisoning because Camane does a blood-letting on his jugular vein with the help of Marcus Agrippa (Chris Egan). Normally it’s done at the wrist, Camane. Meanwhile Antony has inexplicably made Tyrannus a centurion in his army, where Tyrannus immediately starts pissing off General Rapax (Graham McTavish) by trying to be nice to the soldiers. And for no reason, Antony doesn’t have Cicero killed.

Octavian reads a story of Caesar’s ‘legendary’ 3rd Legion that was lost at the Battle of Bibracte in Gaul. He rides off to Gaul and stumbles into The Eagle of the Ninth, learning that the lost legion has somehow just been living in Gaul for the past decade without anyone noticing. So he persuades the remnants of the 3rd Legion to fight for him by letting them carve a trident into his shoulder-blade and then leads them against Antony at the Battle of Mutina, at which Tyrannus decides to switch sides and helps save the day and Octavius defeats Antony and inexplicably grants him his life, which somehow causes him the win the day and resolve the whole conflict, and then rainbows and unicorns fly out of his ass and everyone lives happily every after, because the Republic is going to get overthrown after all and Octavius gets to be the new dictator and take away everyone’s politial rights.

God I hate this miniseries.

 

Want to Know More? 

If after all this, you inexplicably want to see this steaming pile of crap, you can find Empire on Amazon.

There are lots of biographies of Augustus. The one I have on my shelf is Pat Southern’s Augustus.


Empire: Oh, God, I Can’t Take This Anymore

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More stupid crap in Empire:

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No, the punishment for treason by a Vestal was not being buried up to the neck and then stoned. The Vestals were untouchable except for the severe offense of fornication. The punishment for that was being buried alive with a jug of water and a loaf of bread. The purpose of that was no specific person was responsible for the Vestal’s death, because that would have outraged the gods. Touching them, even to punish them, was unacceptable because it was seen as impinging on their chastity. Since their chastity was understood as vital to the health of the Roman state, the idea of punishing them in any way that involved physical contact was unacceptable.

No, Italy did not have a massive gladiator school somewhere in Mordor where Tyrannus (Jonathan Cake), Octavius (Santiago Cabrera), and Senator Magonius (Dennis Haysbert) could be thrown after they are captured, only to fight their way out of. Gladiators were valuable property and were not forced to live like wild animals in a mine.

No, it did not take an enormous crisis for the Senate to have the authority to appoint a new Pontifex Maximus and no, Brutus was not appointed as said Pontifex Maximus so that he could forcibly take Camane from the Temple of Vesta. The college of pontiffs elected the Pontifex Maximus from their own number, and after Caesar’s assassination, the office went to Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, who became an ally of Antony and Octavian.

No, Romans did not use medieval broadswords, even during gladiatorial training. Nor did they use medieval flails for gladiatorial training.

No, Romans did not say ‘Hail, Caesar!” during his lifetime. The phrase is a common modern misquote of the phrase “Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant” (“Hail, emperor, those who are about to die salute you.” The only recorded use of the phrase dates to 52 AD when a group of fighters in a fake naval battle (technically these were not gladiators at all, but naumachiarii) greeted Claudius with the salutation. While widely known and misquoted today, there is literally no reason to think the phrase was customarily used by gladiators or anyone else.

No, ‘Caesar’ was not a title in this period. It was just a cognomen, which Octavian acquired as soon as he was adopted. When Cassius shouts “you’ll never be Caesar,” it’s like someone telling me “you’ll never be Larsen.” But then, we already know that movies and tv shows never get Roman names right.

No, Cicero (Michael Byrne) was not a supporter of Caesar and Octavius and an opponent of Brutus and Cassius. It was pretty much the opposite. He was politically opposed to Caesar, and Mark Antony (Vincent Regan) was a personal enemy of his. He was something of an ally of Brutus and praise Caesar’s assassination. He did to some extent befriend Octavius, but mostly as a way to play him off against Antony, and in the period 44-43 BC, produced a series of 14 Phillipic Orations against Antony.

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Vincent Regan as Mark Antony

No, Mark Antony did not have a beloved dog named Sulla. How do I know this? Because Sulla was one of the optimates, the pro-Senatorial, anti-crowd factions in Roman politics, while Mark Antony was one of the populares, the pro-Tribune, anti-aristocratic elite faction (I’m oversimplifying, because many of the populares  were themselves aristocrats and senators). So naming his dog after one of the arch-optimates of the previous generation would be like Hillary Clinton naming her beloved dog Nixon. Nor is it likely that he would joke about his wife being his ‘commanding officer’, because submission to women was seen as a sign that a man was unfit to rule.

No, there were not people called ‘master assassins’ in ancient Rome. The whole concept of being a master at an occupation is a fundamentally medieval concept, only beginning to emerge in the 12th century with the guild system. The concept of people who were trained as assassins only emerged around the 12th century in the Middle East when the Ismaili section of Shia Islam was established, and even these people weren’t ‘professional’ assassins, but rather religious fanatics who went on suicide missions. And whatever assassins existed in ancient Rome sure as hell weren’t magical beast-masters who could see what their falcons saw and shape-change into wolves. This is supposed to be actual history, remember?

No, orgies were not regular features of Roman parties. While Romans had somewhat more lax rules about where and when and with whom sexual activity was acceptable than more Americans do, they regarded unrestrained sex parties with disapproval and suspicion as something likely to erode the morality of Rome and as potentially politically subversive. Simply a rumor about such activity was enough to get the cult of Bacchus banned in Italy in 188 BC. Stories about Roman emperors such as Tiberius and Caligula throwing debauched parties were told to demonstrate the emperor’s unsuitability to rule and may well simply be slanderous inventions. Even if these stories are true, later Roman historians report them disapprovingly, demonstrating that even a century after this period, Roman culture considered sex parties disreputable.

No, there was no mass murder of Caesar’s supporters using asps and wolves during an orgy in Rome. It certainly wouldn’t have been engineered by Mark Antony, because he would have been killing off his own supporters and allies.

And no, the screenwriters of this horrid piece of dreck should not have been allowed to write a mini-series about a historical period they clearly cared nothing about.

Want to Know More?
Go take a walk instead. It’s nice out. The exercise will do you good.