Daniel Hannan is the author of ‘How we Invented Freedom‘ (published in the US and Canada as ‘Inventing Freedom: how the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World‘). He speaks French and Spanish and loves Europe, but believes the EU is making its peoples poorer, less democratic and less free.
Daniel Hannan writes: Seventy-five years ago today, Red Army troops smashed into Poland. Masters of deception and propaganda, they encouraged locals to believe that they were coming to join the battle against Hitler, who had invaded two weeks’ earlier. But, within a day, the true nature of the Nazi-Soviet collaboration was exposed.
The two armies met at the town of Brest, where the 1918 peace treaty between the Kaiser’s government and Lenin’s revolutionary state had been signed. Soldiers fraternised, exchanging food and tobacco – pre-rolled German cigarettes contrasting favourably against rough Russian papirosi. A joint military parade was staged, the Wehrmacht’s field grey uniforms alongside the olive green of the shoddier
Soviets. The two generals, Guderian and Krivoshein, had a slap-up lunch and, as they bade each other farewell, the Soviet commander invited German reporters to visit him in Moscow “after the victory over capitalist Albion”.
These events are keenly remembered in the nations that were victims of the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty: Romania, Finland and, most of all, Poland and the Baltic States. But they don’t occupy anything like the place in our collective memory of the war that they deserve.
Almost everyone in Britain knows that the Second World War started when Hitler sent his panzers into Poland. Stalin’s mirror invasion 16 days later, while not exactly forgotten, is not nearly so central in our narrative.
Which is, if you think about it, very odd. The Nazi-Soviet Pact lasted for 22 months – a third of the duration of the entire conflict. We remember, with pride, that we stood alone against Hitler. But in reality, our fathers’ isolation – and commensurate heroism – was even greater than this suggests. I can think of no braver moment in the war than when, having already declared war on Hitler, we prepared to open a new front against Stalin, too. British commandos were on the verge of being deployed to defend Finland, while the Cabinet toyed with various schemes to seize the USSR’s oil supplies in the Caucasus.
In the event, such plans were overtaken by developments. Still, for sheer, bloody-minded gallantry, it was an unbeatable moment, beautifully captured in the reaction of Evelyn Waugh’s fictional hero, Guy Crouchback: “The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms.”
Why do we downplay that memory? Largely because it doesn’t fit with what happened later. When Hitler attacked the USSR – to the utter astonishment of Stalin, who initially ordered his soldiers not to shoot back – it was in everyone’s interest to forget the earlier phase of the war. Western Communists, who had performed extraordinary acrobatics to justify their entente with fascism, now carried out another somersault and claimed that the Nazi-Soviet Pact had only ever been a tactical pause, a moment when Stalin brilliantly stalled while building up his military capacity. Even today, the historiographical imprint of that propaganda lingers.
To the modern reader, George Orwell’s depiction of how enmity alternates between Eurasia and Eastasia seems far-fetched; but when he published his great novel in 1948, such things were a recent memory. It suited Western Leftists, during and after the War, to argue that Hitler had been uniquely evil, certainly wickeder than Stalin. It was thus necessary to forget the enthusiasm with which the two tyrants had collaborated.
The full extent of their conspiracy is exposed in The Devils’ Alliance, a brilliant new history by Roger Moorhouse. Moorhouse is a sober and serious historian, writing with no obvious political agenda. Calmly, he tells the story of the Pact: its genesis, its operation and the reasons for its violent end. When recounting such a monstrous tale, it is proper to be calm: great events need no embroidery. What he reveals is a diabolical compact which, if it stopped just short of being an alliance, can in no way be thought of as a hiccup or anomaly. Read the rest of this entry »
June marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the ‘Great Charter’ that established the rule of law for the English-speaking world. Its revolutionary impact still resounds today.
Daniel Hannan writes: Eight hundred years ago next month, on a reedy stretch of riverbank in southern England, the most important bargain in the history of the human race was struck. I realize that’s a big claim, but in this case, only superlatives will do. As Lord Denning, the most celebrated modern British jurist put it, Magna Carta was “the greatest constitutional document of all time, the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”
“We British have, by any measure, been slow to recognize what we have. Americans, by contrast, have always been keenly aware of the document, referring to it respectfully as the Magna Carta. Why? Largely because of who the first Americans were.”
It was at Runnymede, on June 15, 1215, that the idea of the law standing above the government first took contractual form. King John accepted that he would no longer get to make the rules up as he went along. From that acceptance flowed, ultimately, all the rights and freedoms that we now take for granted: uncensored newspapers, security of property, equality before the law, habeas corpus, regular elections, sanctity of contract, jury trials.
[Order Daniel Hannan‘s book “Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World” from Amazon.com]
Magna Carta is Latin for “Great Charter.” It was so named not because the men who drafted it foresaw its epochal power but because it was long. Yet, almost immediately, the document began to take on a political significance that justified the adjective in every sense. The bishops and barons who had brought King John to the negotiating table understood that rights required an enforcement mechanism. The potency of a charter is not in its parchment but in the authority of its interpretation.
“The whole constitutional history of England is little more than a commentary on Magna Carta.”
— Victorian historian William Stubbs
The constitution of the U.S.S.R., to pluck an example more or less at random, promised all sorts of entitlements: free speech, free worship, free association. But as Soviet citizens learned, paper rights are worthless in the absence of mechanisms to hold rulers to account.
Magna Carta instituted a form of conciliar rule that was to develop directly into the Parliament that meets at Westminster today. As the great Victorian historian William Stubbs put it, “the whole constitutional history of England is little more than a commentary on Magna Carta.”
“As early as 1637, Maryland sought permission to incorporate Magna Carta into its basic law, and the first edition of the Great Charter was published on American soil in 1687 by William Penn.”
And not just England. Indeed, not even England in particular. Magna Carta has always been a bigger deal in the U.S. The meadow where the abominable King John put his royal seal to the parchment lies in my electoral district in the county of Surrey. It went unmarked until 1957, when a memorial stone was finally raised there—by the American Bar Association.
Only now, for the anniversary, is a British monument being erected at the place where freedom was born. After some frantic fundraising by me and a handful of local councilors, a large bronze statue of Queen Elizabeth II will gaze out across the slow, green waters of the Thames, marking 800 years of the Crown’s acceptance of the rule of law. Read the rest of this entry »
I heard a portion of an interview with Hannan on the radio yesterday, it was compelling, made me want to hear more. Maybe I’ll get the ebook edition.
Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World [Kindle Edition] [Hardcover Edition]
Daniel Hannan writes: How many countries fought for liberty in both World Wars and the Cold War?
We are still experiencing the after-effects of an astonishing event. The inhabitants of a damp island at the western tip of the Eurasian landmass stumbled upon the idea that the government ought to be subject to the law, not the other way around. The rule of law created security of property and contract, which in turn led to industrialisation and modern capitalism. For the first time in the history of the species, a system grew up that, on the whole, rewarded production better than predation.
Why did it happen? Why, after thousands of years of oligarchy and tyranny, did a system evolve that lifted the individual above the tribe rather than the reverse? How did that system see off rival models that elevated collective endeavour, martial glory, faith and sacrifice over liberty and property? How did the world come to speak our language?
I set out to answer these questions in my book, published in North America as Inventing Freedom and in the rest of the Anglosphere as How we Invented Freedom. (It’s reviewed here by Charles Moore.) I trace the lineage of liberty back through its great landmarks – the war against slavery, the American Revolution, the Glorious Revolution, the English Civil War, Magna Carta – to its origins in the folkright of Anglo-Saxon common law. Read the rest of this entry »