The White Queen: So Near, and Yet So Far


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Philippa Gregory’s work as a writer of historical fiction has drawn a great deal of criticism from historians, even though she has a bachelor’s in history and a doctorate in 18th-century literature. And the BBC series The White Queen, which is an adaptation of three of her Plantagenet novels (The White Queen, the Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s Daughter), was not well-received by critics. But it’s something medieval, which I needed after my Fall of Eagles sojourn in the 19th century.


The series focuses on the middle and late phases of the Wars of the Roses, opening in 1461, a few years after the Battle of Towton in which Edward of York and his brothers George of Clarence and Richard of Gloucester have overthrown the Lancastrian Henry VI and established Edward as king. At the start of the first episode he meets, falls in love, and married Elizabeth Woodville .

Elizabeth came from the absolute bottom level of the English nobility. Her father, Sir Richard Woodville, was a mere knight (and technically therefore not actually nobility at all), while her mother was Jacquetta of Luxembourg, daughter of a Flemish count and widow of Henry VI’s uncle. He was only given a noble title in 1466, two years after becoming the king’s father-in-law (although the series calls him Lord Rivers all the way through).


Elizabeth Woodville

This marriage was a problem for several reasons. First, as noted, Elizabeth was essentially a commoner, whereas Edward ought to have married a member of the high nobility. Second, the Woodville clan had been Lancastrians, and only accepted Edward in the wake of the marriage. Third, The Woodvilles were a large family; Elizabeth had two sons by her previous marriage to Sir John Grey and she had a staggering 14 brothers and sisters (although her oldest brother died when he was 12). This huge family had to be provided for out of Edward’s patronage simply to make them appropriate in-laws for the king, and that made them appear as grasping upstarts to the established English nobility. Fourth, Edward conducted the marriage in secret; he was known to be highly-sexed and had already had several flings with women.

Finally, the marriage was a problem because Edward’s chief supporter, Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, had been negotiating to marry Edward to a French princess. Edward allowed Warwick to keep negotiating for some time after his marriage, but finally revealed that he already had a wife, humiliating and infuriating Warwick. Warwick was the most wealthy and powerful man in the kingdom, and his role in the Yorkist revolt against Henry VI had earned him the nickname the Kingmaker. This incident began the fracturing of the alliance between Edward and Warwick that ultimately led to Warwick conspiring with Edward’s brother George and then with Henry VI’s wife, Margaret of Anjou. Had Edward done the proper thing and married the French princess, it’s quite possible that the Wars of the Roses would have ended in 1461 and perhaps the Plantagenets would still be ruling England. So a story that focuses on this marriage and its consequences is certainly a great idea.

So Close…

As I watched the series, I found myself becoming impressed by it. The first half of it does a fairly good job of following the actual events. It opens with Elizabeth (Rebecca Ferguson) presenting herself to Edward (Max Irons) as he rides past her home, hoping to recover her late husband’s estate, which had been confiscated because he had been killed fighting for the Lancastrian cause three years earlier. Edward becomes attracted to her and she initially resists (because in romance novels, women who just give in and have sex are sluts, don’t you know) but accepts Edward’s marriage proposal. In the series, this is presented as Elizabeth being uncertain about her feelings until Edward proposes, but a more plausible scenario to my mind is that Elizabeth intentionally held out for marriage (much like Anne Boleyn did with Henry VIII two generations later) because she knew Edward had a reputation as a womanizer and saw the marriage as a way to advance her family. After all, Jacquetta had been a high noblewoman and certainly understood how the court worked, and that’s somewhat the way the show presents her mother as well. (Janet McTeer’s Jacquetta is one of the real bright spots in the show.)

The next several episodes trace the growing conflict between Warwick (James Frain) and Edward. It presents the Woodvilles as being the catalyst for this alienation, which is basically correct. Elizabeth seeks to find husbands and wives for her siblings and her two oldest sons. Traditionally, this has been seen as evidence that the Woodvilles were seeking to rise about their station, but the series does a nice job of looking at it from their point of view as a family suddenly thrust into the thick of English politics and needing to establish a genuine power base. And Edward begins giving the Woodvilles high offices, thus depriving Warwick’s family of a different source of wealth and power. But Elizabeth’s parents also manage to offend Warwick by insisting on their precedence at court over Warwick.

Warwick favors an alliance, or at least a peace, with France, but Edward begins to favor an alliance with the dukes of Burgundy, who in this period were rivals to France. Jacquetta was related to the royal house of Burgundy, so it’s unclear whether Edward is simply engaging in his own foreign policy or if the Woodvilles were pushing him toward Burgundy. Warwick is eventually revealed to have a secret deal with the king of France for land there, so the series put sthe focus more on why Warwick wants France rather than why Edward is favoring Burgundy.

The series also does a nice job of milking tension out of the fact that the first three children after the marriage were all girls. On paper, the fact that Edward’s first son wasn’t born until 1470 seems like a minor detail. But the show explores the reality that until Edward had a son, his hold on the throne was tenuous, because his heir was his brother George (David Oakes). Since Henry VI was still alive, Edward’s opponents could choose to support either the old king or George. That made the Woodvilles all vulnerable as well.


Edward IV, Elizabeth, and their young son Edward

Eventually, Warwick grows frustrated and begins to plot with George. Historically, George married Warwick’s daughter Isabel in defiance of the king’s wishes in 1469 and then he and Warwick rebelled and seized Edward. Rather than deposing him in favor of George (which is probably what George was hoping for), Warwick tried to rule through Edward, keeping him prisoner in Warwick castle, but the English nobility refused to accept this and since Warwick was unwilling to kill or depose Edward, eventually he had to release the king and seek a reconciliation.

But that collapsed quickly. Warwick and George fled the country, made an alliance with Margaret of Anjou to put Henry VI back on the throne, and invaded at the head of an army that successfully forced Edward and Richard of Gloucester to flee to Flanders. Warwick returned Henry (or more properly his wife Margaret) to power. But this realignment encouraged France to declare war on Burgundy, and Burgundy supplied Edward with an army with which he was able to return, defeat and kill Warwick at the Battle of Barnet, and reclaim the throne, deposing Henry for a second and final time.


The Battle of Barnet

As I was thinking about that rather complex sequence of events, I assumed that the series would simplify things the way most historical films do. I expected it to omit Warwick and George’s initial rebellion and attempt to rule through Edward and just jump to the rebellion that deposed Edward in favor of Henry. But much to my surprise, the series played out the events roughly as they happened. The only major details it omitted were things involving people outside the show’s main circle of characters. (For example, neither Louis XI or the duke of Burgundy ever appear in the show, and their actions are barely even mentioned. Likewise the actions of English nobles like the earl of Pembroke and the earl of Devon during the rebellions are glossed over.) That impressed me a lot and I started thinking that I might have to declare this one of the best historical productions I’ve seen. In general, down through the end of Edward’s life, the show hits most of the major events of the reign in the right order. When it simplifies, it usually doesn’t oversimplify.

…And Yet So Far

Sadly, as the series goes on, though, it starts going wrong. One major issue is that it starts employing speculation and gossip as fact. For example, after Edward recovers his throne, he and his brothers go to the Tower and smother Henry in his bed to remove the threat. Elizabeth somehow stumbles upon them and witnesses the murder. The fact that Henry conveniently died the night before Edward’s re-coronation was so suspicious that most people assumed at the time (and still do today) that Edward ordered Henry’s death. A generation later, Thomas More’s History of Richard III says that Richard did the deed, but since More was writing during the reign of Henry VIII, he would have had to write about Richard as a tyrant, and Richard is known to have not been in London at the time of Henry’s death. Edward must surely have ordered the killing; Henry was too important a political pawn for someone to kill him without at least the king’s tacit approval. But it’s absurd to suggest that Edward himself did the deed. That’s what low-level servants are for.

The historical Edward eventually had a falling out with George. After Isabel died in 1476, George began to harbor ambitions to marry the duchess of Burgundy, a move that would have made Edward quite uncomfortable because of its political implications. When Edward refused to consent to it, George left court permanently. Then in 1477, it was learned that George had employed an astrologer to forecast his brother’s death. Trying to predict the time of the king’s death was seen as temptingly close to trying to cause the king’s death. George compounded the mistake after the astrologer’s execution by having a former Lancastrian protest the execution in Parliament. That was the last straw, and Edward arrested George, tried him for treason (personally acting as the prosecutor), and then executed him. Rumor has it that he was drowned in a butt of Malmsey, but no one really thinks that’s how George was dispatched.

However, the series (which gets the basic facts mostly right, if a little simplified) shows him being drowned in wine. On its own, it’s a forgivable moment of melodrama, but by this point, the show is starting to go seriously wrong, including things that are either total speculation or else just plain wrong.

A major problem in the series is its depiction of Margaret Beaufort, the Countess of Richmond and mother of Henry Tudor, who becomes Henry VII after the Battle of Bosworth Field. Margaret was the great-great-granddaughter of Edward III through his fourth son John of Gaunt and Gaunt’s mistress Katherine Swynford. Although Gaunt eventually married Katherine and had his children with her legitimized, the act of legitimation explicitly declared them ineligible for the throne, But after the death of Henry VI and his son Edward, Henry Tudor was the last Lancastrian claimant to the throne.


Margaret Beaufort

In the series, Margaret (Amanda Hale) has two major characteristics: a profound, if not obsessive, piety and an absolute conviction that her son will become king some day. Margaret’s piety, at least in later life, is well-established, so that’s a reasonable take on her. However the show depicts her as a hard-core Lancastrian, but it’s a little unlikely that Margaret was personally opposed to the Yorkists. Her second husband, Edmund Tudor, was a Lancastrian, but she was married to him at 12 and widowed at 13, barely having enough time to get a child with him. Her third and fourth husbands were both Yorkists whom she got along well with. She was close enough with Elizabeth Woodville to be chosen as the godmother of one of her younger daughters. And during Richard III’s reign, she was actively plotting with Elizabeth against him.

Any Lancastrian sympathies she had must have been because her son was the Lancastrian claimant, which means that while Henry VI and his son was alive, she probably had no serious expectation that her son might inherit; his claim was weak and the king had a son who had plenty of time to have children of his own. Even after 1471, it is improbable that she had high hopes, because Henry was a long way from the throne; he would only inherit if Edward; both his sons; Edward’s brother George; George’s son Edward; Richard; and Richard’s son Edward all died (and that’s ignoring all the daughters, who had claims as well). In fact, they did all die, but it probably wasn’t until Richard seized the throne that Margaret might have begun thinking her son had a good shot at the throne.

But Hale’s Amanda is insistent from the very first scene she’s in that the Yorkists are all illegitimate and that her son is destined to be king. She obsessively nags her third husband and Henry’s uncle Jasper about it, and after she marries Lord Stanley (Rupert Graves), the two of them begin to actively scheme for it. By Richard’s reign, the two of them are playing both Richard and Elizabeth in a hare-brained scheme to get rid of the princes in the Tower, engage Henry to Elizabeth’s daughter Elizabeth and then depose Richard. Historically, Margaret and Elizabeth Woodville did decide to unite their two families, but that was only after it became fairly clear that Elizabeth’s two sons were dead.


Hale as Margaret

In my next post, I’ll talk about one the show’s HUGE problems.

Production Choices

I normally don’t say much about production issues, but for some reason the series’ production choices really caught my eye. Frock Flicks has a few pointed observations about the generally boring outfits the women were given (especially Anne Neville and Margaret Beaufort, both of whom are stuck wearing one dress for several years). But the show has a charming dearth of black leather and open doublets, so it deserves a little praise.

The show was filmed in Belgium, and they used a lot of historical sites to stand in for places like Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, and various royal and noble palaces. There are definitely a few issues, such as many of the staircases having metal railings, and some of the paintings in the background are clearly 16th century or later. A An enormous bath-tub Elizabeth uses in the second episode really stands out. And much of the architecture just screams that the show wasn’t filmed in England. The windows, for example, are all wrong.

Normally that sort of thing doesn’t bother me at all. The nature of historical filmmaking often requires compromises like that. The actual locations might not survive, or might not be open to film crews, or might just not be available. Appropriate buildings often have modern features like railings that make finding good shots tough. Production budgets can be tight, so using locations that are already furnished with quasi-medieval furniture and decorations helps save money. But for some reason, in this series, the locations were constantly knocking me out of the story-telling. It just doesn’t look like England, despite the frequent inserted shots of London’s White Tower.

More problematically, the show spans 21 years (1464-1485), but there is almost no effort made to age the actors appropriately. For the first five episodes or so, that’s not a problem, because only about 6 years pass, but in the last several episodes, it starts to become an issue. Several of the male characters grow beards, and some of them are giving a little grey at the temples, but that’s about as far as it goes.

Margaret Beaufort is a particular problem. The actress looks the same in 1485 as she does in 1464. When she’s playing scenes with the boy Henry Tudor, this isn’t a serious problem. But in the last episode, when she’s opposite Michael Marcus as the adult Henry she could plausibly be playing his girlfriend instead of his mother. A little bit of make-up would have gone a long way in this series.


See what I mean?


Want to Know More?

The White Queen is available on Starz, and on Amazon. The three novels it is based on are The White QueenThe Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s DaughterThey are also available as a set with two other novels.

If you’re looking to learn about Edward IV, for my money the best book is Charles Ross, Edward IVHis The Wars of the Roses is a very good introduction to the events. David Baldwin’s Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower is a good look at Edward’s queen.



Fall of Eagles: Communism


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The one 19th century ideology that Fall of Eagles addresses head-on is Socialism, or more properly the subset of Socialism that is Communism, obviously because it played such a huge role in the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty in Russia. So the series focuses on the Communists in two episodes, “Absolute Beginners” (episode 6) and “The Secret War” (episode 12). The former deals with Vladimir Lenin maneuvering to take control of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, while the latter sees Lenin and his followers smuggled into Russia during the Great War.


Marx and Engels had developed the basics of Communist theory in the 1840s. In Marx’ view, history was driven by a process of class struggle. In various societies, the details differed, but there were always two social classes, an upper dominant class and a lower class oppressed by the upper class. Eventually the two classes would come into direct conflict and the upper class would make conditions for the lower class so oppressive that the lower class would revolt and overthrow the upper class. Then the lower class would restructure society with itself as the new upper class, while a new oppressed lower class would eventually emerge from the selfish actions of the new upper class. This cycle of oppression, overthrow, and restructuring was, for Marx, the engine of all historical change.

As Marx saw it, the French Revolution had put the ‘bourgeoisie’ on top, by which he meant the class of men who owned the factories, mines, railways, banks, and other elements of capitalist manufacturing. They controlled all the elements of industrial production except for the labor to run the mines and factories. The labor was provided by the ‘proletariat’, the manual workers, who were being horrifically oppressed by the brutal working conditions in 19th century factories and mines (child labor, excessive hours, low wages, dangerous working conditions, and so on). Communist theory primarily makes sense in the context of the Industrial Revolution, which by the 1840s was in full swing across Western Europe.

Marx predicted that the next cycle of revolution would involve the proletariat rising up and overthrowing the bourgeoisie. They would seize control of the state, which would take over the running of the factories on behalf of the workers. Essentially, the workers would be running the factories they worked in. Because of that, the factories would no longer be oppressive to the workers, and because the workers were not oppressing themselves, there would be no new lower class. Thus the cycle of class struggle that had driven society since the beginning of history would come to an end because a classless society would be created.


Karl Marx


So much for the basic principles of Communist thought. For Lenin and his fellow Russian Communists, the big debate was how to apply this model to Russia, where the country just barely beginning the Industrial Revolution. The country’s economy was overwhelming agrarian in nature, with only a small number of extremely brutal factories having been established by 1900. Without the Industrial Revolution and an industrial proletariat, how could the Proletarian Revolution occur? Since Marx’ ideas were understood by his followers to be scientific the way that Newton’s Laws of Gravity were scientific, it appeared to many Russian Communists that things would have to get worse before they could get better; the Russian bourgeoisie would have to be encouraged to seize control of the Russian state and spread the brutality of the Industrial Revolution before there was a large enough proletariat to achieve the Proletarian Revolution. Ultimately, Lenin came to disagree with that view, arguing that it was possible to leapfrog the Industrial Revolution and achieve the Proletarian Revolution in a largely peasant society. His modification of Marx and Engel’s theories came to be called Leninism.

But the RSDLP was more than just Lenin, and many other Russian Communists had different ideas. Lenin’s chief position of influence in 1900 was as a member of the board of the RSDLP’s newspaper Iskra (‘Spark’), which was published somewhat sporadically because Lenin had to keep relocating because of pressure from various governments. By 1902, Lenin and Iskra was based in London, with an editorial staff that included Lenin, Julius Martov, Georgi Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich, and later Leon Trotsky. In 1903, this group was able to convene the 2nd Congress of the RSDLP, first in Belgium and, when that meeting was broken up by the Belgian police, then in London.



In London, a rift opened within Iskra’s board. In a debate over how to define ‘party member’, Lenin pushed for a definition in which a party member was a member of one of the party’s recognized organizations (and therefore under the party’s control), whereas Martov advocated for a somewhat looser definition of any person who was working under the guidance of the party (but not necessarily a formal member of any organization). While the difference was small, it represented something quite large. Lenin had a vision of a party of professional revolutionaries who were financially dedicated to the party with a large penumbra of less committed sympathizers, whereas Martov wanted a more broadly-based group of activists who were all moving in the same general direction but not necessarily completely in unison with the RSDLP’s theories. Lenin’s position allowed for the existence of a class-like group of guiding intellectuals, whereas Martov represented a more traditionally Marxist classless system. When the issue came to a vote, Martov’s position won out by a slim majority of 5 votes (out of a total of 51). But 7 of Martov’s supporters later walked out, mostly over the question of how to handle Jewish members (should they be grouped together as the Bund, their own branch of the party, or not?), giving Lenin the majority of 2 votes that he needed to establish his definition of party member.

This led to a rift between Lenin and Martov, who was backed by Zasulich, Trotsky, and eventually Plekhanov. Lenin ultimately labeled Martov’s faction the Mensheviks (‘the Minority’) and his faction the Bolsheviks (‘the Majority’), despite the fact that neither side had a consistent dominance over the party. However, when Lenin’s attempt to restrict the editorial board of Iskra to just three (himself, Lenin, and Plehanov) was defeated, Lenin left the paper, giving it over to the control of the Mensheviks.


Lenin in Fall of Eagles

Patrick Stewart is perfectly cast as the aggressively determined Lenin (more than a little of his later performances as Captain Picard shine through). Not only does he look a startling amount like Lenin, he perfectly captures the man’s moral certainty. “Absolute Beginners” focus closely on the debates around Iskra and the 2nd Party Congress, so the episode appears set in 1903.


Stewart as Lenin


The episode doesn’t delve very deeply into the Marxist ideas at the root of the Communists’ goals. Perhaps the author assumed that the viewers already understand basic Marxist theory. Instead, we get a debate between Lenin and Zasulich (Mary Wimbush) over the question of whether the Russian peasantry can be combined with the proletariat or not. As Zasulich points out sarcastically, the peasantry will have to be involved in the revolution because there are too many of them for Lenin to massacre, but Lenin dogmatically insists that only the proletariat can be involved in leading the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Then an ugly incident occurs in which a messenger arrives with word about a party member, Nikolay Bauman. Bauman had gotten a married party member pregnant and then began spreading malicious rumors about her (which included a vicious satirical cartoon of her as a pregnant Virgin Mary). The woman committed suicide. Martov (Edward Wilson) is very upset about the incident, but Lenin refuses to even meet with the messenger because Bauman was a good party worker, which in Lenin’s mind means that they should overlook his “personal misdemeanor’. Zasulich is disgusted by Lenin’s decision and storms out. The episode presents this as the thing that triggered Martov’s eventual falling out with Lenin.


Wimbush as Zasulich

The Bauman incident certainly came to be seen as an ethical distinction between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, but moreso after the rift had occurred than as a cause of it. But the episode is very hostile to Lenin. He is depicted as hard and doctrinaire and essentially power-hungry; at one point, he has a fever dream in which he repeatedly says “I am the party!” When he learns that Martov has gone to Geneva to meet with Plekhanov (Paul Eddington), Lenin immediately suspects that Martov is maneuvering to betray him, so he goes to Geneva and plots with Plekhanov to seize control of the party.

The episode then devotes a full 15 minutes to the debate over the definition of ‘party member’ at the 2nd Congress. Martov and Lenin lay out their differences quite clearly and Martov wins. It’s clear that Martov still regards Lenin as a friend and tries to soothe over their differences, but Lenin clearly regards him as an enemy. He manipulates matters to offend the Jewish delegates in order to get them to walk out (and blatantly locks Martov out of a key meeting in order to achieve that). He accuses Martov of betraying his principles in a scheme to achieve control, when in reality it’s clear that Lenin is the one who’s angling for power. He uses Martov’s desire to patch up their friendship to force Martov to denounce the Jewish Bund, leading to the walkout by the Jewish delegates. The impact of the walkout on the voting is never explained, so the emphasis here is mostly on Lenin being a dick to his former friends.

Then Lenin proposes reducing the Iskra board to himself, Plekhanov, and Martov, prompting Zasulich to denounce him and walk out, leading with her several more delegates. Martov rejects his nomination, having realized that Lenin is a vicious schemer. Trotsky (Michael Kitchen) also denounces him and walks out, while Lenin sits impassively watching the responses. By the end of the episode, Lenin is convinced of his own righteousness, but has alienated almost all of his previous friends.


Wilson as Martov


While this portrait of Lenin is not false, it is perhaps incomplete. It makes no attempt to show why Lenin was able to inspire such devotion among his followers, and his persuasiveness appears to be purely intellectual, not driven by his intense charisma. Stewart’s Lenin is not so much charismatic as overbearing, and it’s unclear why his wife Nadezhna (Lynn Farleigh) stays with him after he destroys Zasulich. In reality, he was deeply devoted to her, and passionately fond of children. (His love of children actually became an element of later Soviet propaganda.) But these more positive traits would detract from the view of Lenin the show is offering, and so they are disregarded. This is perhaps an artifact that Fall of Eagles was made during the Cold War, when Western culture had to cast Soviet figures in a negative light.

This is my last post on Fall of Eagles. I’d like to thank my reader Stephen for pointing me toward this series, which I’d never heard of before. Hopefully you feel like you got your money’s worth from these reviews. If there’s a film or tv show you’d like me to review, please consider making a donation to my Paypal account; if I can track it down and think it’s appropriate for the blog, I’ll give it a review.

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’re interested in Lenin, one of the best biographies of him is by Robert Service, Lenin: A Biography.

It’s sometimes criticized for its scholarly focus on small details, so if you want something a bit lighter, you might try Catherine Merridale’s Lenin on the Train, which deals with his role in the Great War and his fateful train journey into Russia in 1917.

Why I Think Confederate is a Bad Idea


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Last week, Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss announced plans for their follow-up HBO series, to be called Confederate. It will tell the story of an alternate United States where the Confederacy won the Civil War. Slavery is still legal and the country is heading toward the Third American Civil War.

The announcement aroused a great deal of controversy from people who objected to the idea of the series. A big part of the concern has stemmed from the fact that Benioff and Weiss have not challenged GoT’s white savior narrative that dominates Daenerys Targaryen’s storyline. It’s true that the basis for that narrative is George RR Martin’s writing, but they’ve done nothing to make that narrative less racially problematic or to improve the character development of the few black characters on the show. So it’s easy to see why so many people think that they can’t be trusted to tell a story centering around the actual real-world racism of the American slave system.

Given the nature of this blog, I figured that I should add my thoughts on this proposed series. I’m white, which obviously shapes the way I think about issues of race, and I don’t claim to be an arbiter of what people ought to think about these issues. But since my wheelhouse here is history and film/television, I feel obligated to say something.

Counterfactual scenarios are certainly worth thinking about. Historians often need to think about the what ifs in order to get a sense of what was at stake in a historical moment. In order to understand the impact of George Washington on the United States, it’s important to contemplate what might have happened if Washington had not stepped down after two terms as president. So a question like “what if George Washington had been less committed to democracy?” is valuable to ask, even if there’s no way to prove the answer to it.

But this show isn’t really asking “What would have happened if the South had won the Civil War?” because the Confederacy’s goal in the Civil War was not to conquer the North, just to achieve independence from the United States. The scenario the show envisions is one in which the South did not break away from the United States, but rather fought the North to a stalemate (according to this interview, at any rate), so that the Union somehow persisted without resolving the issue of slavery. That strikes me as a pretty improbable scenario. If the North couldn’t defeat the South, I’m not sure how they could force the South to continue participating in the Union.

But let’s not worry about the fact that the scenario they’re describing doesn’t really seem plausible. The deeper issue is not how they frame their alternate history but rather whether this show is a good idea at all. And I think the answer is that it’s not.

The Problem with the Whole Idea

My objection to the show is that it assumes that because the Confederacy no longer exists, it must therefore be a neutral force in modern society. That’s the assumption that gets made about monuments to Confederate leaders today—that because they memorialize people and events from the mid-19th century, they must not be anything more than markers of the past, a past that some people choose to take pride in.

The reality is far more complex than that. Confederate monuments were often erected not simply as memorials of the past, but as efforts to shape the moment they were built in. For example, in 1924, Charlottesville, VA, used the building of a couple of Confederate memorials as tools to push black people out of desirable neighborhoods by signaling that they weren’t welcome in there. In the 1950s and 60s, a number of Southern states chose to start flying the Confederate flag at their statehouse as an expression of resistance to the Civil Rights movement. In the late 19th century, the earliest of these monuments were erected as part of an effort by groups such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans to rewrite the history of the Confederacy and establish the myth of the Lost Cause, which falsely claims that the issue of States’ Rights was the primary cause of the Civil War, rather than the issue of slavery that was the actual cause.

So Confederate symbols are not simply markers of a long-vanished past. They are rather active players in a current debate about the meaning of the past. These monuments attempt to shape our understanding of the past, to render the Confederacy more acceptable by denying key facts and replacing them with a more palatable fiction. In that sense, these monuments already represent a What If scenario. What if the Confederacy had been motivated by something other than a desire to enslave black people? What if the Confederacy had been a valiant effort to defend states against an over-reaching federal government, rather than an attempt to defend one of the most brutal forms of slavery every devised?

Since the era of Reconstruction, most efforts to tell stories about the Confederacy have in fact been Counterfactual scenarios. From Birth of a Nation (What if slavery was actually good because black men were sexual predators?) to Gone with the Wind (What if the slaves were actually happy because the slave owners were nice?) to Sofia Coppola’s Beguiled (What if there were no slaves in the South during the Civil War?), American film-makers and authors have been reluctant to admit the truth about our slave-owning past, because the truth is brutal and ugly and profoundly shameful. We don’t want to admit that our white ancestors did terrible things to our black ancestors.

There is a strong argument to be made that even though the South lost the Civil War, it won the Reconstruction. The South was able to undo many of the effects of having lost the Civil War. While black people were no longer legally property, white society found ways to deny them many of their legal rights. Jim Crow laws functionally stripped a large swath of the black population of its right to vote down into the 1960s. Sharecropping and the prevention of labor unions in much of the South enabled employers to continue their addiction to cheap labor. Lynching and other forms of domestic terrorism kept black people subservient to whites and too fearful to challenge the existing situation.

And these issues have not gone away just because the Civil Rights movement succeeded. The end of lynching was followed almost immediately by the emergence of the Law and Order movement and the massive expansion of the prison system in what many feel amounts to a new form of slavery (since the 13th Amendment does not prohibit forced labor if the laborer is a convicted criminal). The fact that in modern America police seem able to kill black people with near impunity takes on new meaning when considered in light of the degree to which police and sheriff’s departments colluded with lynching in the Jim Crow era. So-called Right to Work laws continue depressing wages in many parts of the South.

My point here is that the United States has never truly had a reckoning with what the Confederacy and slavery actually involved and the way they shaped us. Instead, the entertainment industry has fed us a lot of Counterfactual fantasies designed to soften the facts, to help us look away from the painful truth toward something more palatable. Only a few films, such as 12 Years a Slave (pointedly, a film with a British director and two non-American leads), have made a real effort to show us the brutal, sordid truth about our slave-owning past. So it seems likely to me that any television show that Benioff and Weiss might make will fall into the trap of not telling us the truth, because that’s what Hollywood stories about the Confederacy do. That’s what they’re supposed to do. And on this topic, if it’s not telling us the truth, it will actively promote some version of the lies we have been telling ourselves since the North lost the Reconstruction.

After all, in order to have modern GoT-style drama, there needs to be moral ambiguity. Some of the slave owners have to be nice people, and some of the abolitionists have to be nasty people. But a Cersei Lannister-style abolitionist who will sink to any depths to win must inevitably suggest that maybe abolitionism wasn’t such a pure cause after all. If Sansa Stark owns slaves but dislikes doing so and tries to be nice to them, it implies that slavery must not have been quite as awful as it was because some of the owners must not have been so cruel. There’s just no way to tell HBO stories without compromising about the fundamental immorality of slavery.

Benioff and Weiss say they are aware of the need to get this right, as the interview I linked to above shows. They will be sharing showrunning and writing duties with Michelle and Malcolm Spellman, a black husband-and-wife team, presumably because they feel it’s important to have a strong black viewpoint represented in the inner circle. In the interview, they stress that they understand that many of the racial issues from slavery are still around. They seem to be intending to use the show as a vehicle to dramatize the way that racial issues today are connected to slavery. That’s certainly a laudable goal if they can pull it off.

The problem is that it’s a huge ‘if’. Race is a massive and in some ways intractable problem in American culture. The fact that previous story-telling about slavery and the Confederacy has tended to contribute to the problem rather than its solution leaves me pessimistic that any Confederate Counterfactual scenario could help shift people’s minds.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.