Perfidious Albion is an expression frequently used by French people in regard to the British, and at present is perfectly apposite! I first heard the expression from my French confreres at seminary, though they conceded that I was the most “French” of the English-speakers.
The term comes from the Latin word perfida (by the faith) conventionally meaning treachery and duplicity in politics and diplomacy. The expression is also used in the old Good Friday liturgy in regard to the Jewish people, and has come under harsh criticism on account of the long tradition of anti-Semitism in the Church.
The terms was generalised with the era of the Napoleonic wars, sparked by the excesses of the French Revolution. Today, when there is some minor disagreement between a British person and a French person, the latter will often speak of the Perfide Albion as a joke in the same breath as allusions to the Battle of Waterloo and the burning of St Joan of Arc in Rouen in 1431. Other European countries have also used the expression in their own languages. Polemics over the UK leaving the EU have also served to revive the use of this term in the media.
At this time, my French wife is lapping it up as I find myself a little less nostalgic for the Great Invisible Empire of Romantia. She is a devout Bonapartist and we often joke about our somewhat plain cuisine, and – cheerful facts about the guillotine when I’m in a mood for gallows humour. Stereotyping is a part of our nature, and I often have to remind my wife that Germany was only Nazi for 12 years. My compatriots suffered from Hitler as much as the French did. The country that produced Bach, Beethoven and Goethe moved on after the war and is leading Europe – but Nazism (apart from marginal groups of cranks) is clearly a thing of the past. I was a little less jocular as I faced France in the person of that friendly man at the Prefecture. We triumphalist British are quick to glorify our values of freedom, democracy, human rights, yet our record in the old Empire for atrocities and reneging on deals is appalling. Even Elgar in his day sported an enormous moustache and wrote jingoistic imperial marches, but was a modest and retiring man with his Worcestershire accent, most at home composing beautiful and intimate music. Historical hindsight has enabled us to look on our past with as much shame as the Germans as they move on from their Nazi past.
The British invented the concentration camp during the Boer War, a chilling fact of history. The Sepoy rebels in India were mercilessly blown from cannon and hanged in 1857, even through the Sepoy rebels did horrible things too. The Nazis only continued the tradition of wartime atrocities. The way Ireland has been treated is appalling. The same went for English Roman Catholics in penal times faced with Protestant bigotry and hatred. The list is endless.
There is the French expression – filer à l’anglaise – meaning going away without taking polite leave of your host. Of course we British retorted with the expression taking French leave. I recently read the quip that the sun never sets on the British Empire because God wouldn’t trust an Englishman in the dark! The cynicism and bitterness go back a long way.
Countries are not evil. The problem comes from a small minority of evil people who get themselves into positions of power and influence the population. Conversely, the beauty of a country or nation is brought out by an equally small minority of people who found self-knowledge – and therefore the divine – and created reflections or “icons” of that beauty that nurtured them. England (Scotland Wales and Ireland too) is a beautiful country with its history. I see things as a Romantic rather than a realist. William Blake summed it up beautifully in his poem Jerusalem:
And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
Of course, the “dark satanic mills” do not necessary mean the factories of the Industrial Revolution but probably the universities of Oxford and Cambridge that educated the political elite. The point is debatable and has already been discussed on this blog. This poem is often sung as a hymn to a tune by Parry in public school chapels and national festivals, and forms a part of that triumphalist tradition – which from schooldays I found ironic when I discovered who Blake was and what he believed. I have often speculated further about the “dark satanic mills”. The real dark heart of England is the City of London and the banking system of the ultra-rich. It is the domain of people without conscience or empathy, the stuff of conspiracy theories, but also something of which we are aware.
I have lived for long enough in France to see beyond the red wine, fine cuisine and stereotyped images, the sensuous music of Ravel and the impressionist art of Pissaro and Monet. There are dark moments of this country’s history. France under the Occupation was something quite different from the UK where people were generally united against the Jerries. There was a climate of division and suspicion. In 1944 the reprisals against collaborators and women who fell in love with German soldiers were terrible. France has been divided politically ever since then along the lines of attitudes in regard to extreme right-wing politics. Algeria (like British India and Ghandi) was also a point of division, and the French army committed many atrocities during the Algerian War. There was a terrible amount of bitterness against General de Gaulle, and I once met someone who was in an assassination plot against De Gaulle – not a very pleasant man, by the name of Dominique de Laprade. The Dreyfus Affair also is not forgotten.
Don’t blame the British, but all of us. Is guilt collective? Do we participate in the crimes of others as we read in the Old Testament? I have already mentioned it elsewhere, but I support the theory of these evils being caused by a few percent of the population who are psychopaths, predators, etc. This book by a Polish psychiatrist is not easy reading, but it is worth the effort. Łobaczewski‘s book Political Ponerology is a study of the founders and supporters of oppressive political regimes like Nazism and Stalinist Communism. The Greek word πονηρός means evil. Their evil is the epitome of man’s inhumanity to man. The book makes a totally different approach to evil (ponerology) to that of religion and philosophy. It begins with the study of the psychopath and his influence on those under his control. Dr Robert Hare’s definition of a psychopath is a person who preys ruthlessly on others using charm, deceit, violence or other methods that allow them to get what they want. They lack any moral conscience or sense of guilt. They have little or no empathy. They cheat and lie. They think they are above law and social norms. They have an exaggerated sense of entitlement. Their emotions are shallow and they are glib. I am sure most of us have met persons like that and possibly even suffered from them. Now, most of us are not like that, but feel empathy for others and want to live decent lives.
In this more empirical evaluation of evil people, that is the way they are. It would seem to confirm Calvin’s interpretation of St Augustine in that some are predestined to evil and damnation, perhaps annihilation according to some philosophers and theologians. We all fall short of perfection and virtue, but few of us are evil. Some are evil, about 6% of the population. They inherit it in their genes and DNA. This tiny minority is responsible for most human suffering and crime, and they are able to infect others under their influence. The Polish philosopher Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II, often wrote and spoke of structures of sin. There are evil people and non-evil people who are influenced into sin and evil. The consent to sin of the “non-evil” is not absolute. In a situation like Soviet Communism or the Hitler regime, most of those who committed evil would not have done so without the influence of the regime. It would seem that evil does not always consist only of making evil choices. One example of this influence is the ease by which we can be swept up into a populist movement of black-and-white thinking, slogans and bigotry. This is now happening in my native country.
All societies seem to oscillate between “happy times” and “unhappy times”. During a “happy time”, the last one stretching from 1945 until about 1975, we enjoyed prosperity and politics appeared to be serving the common good. In a time of crisis, people pull together against a common enemy. I remember a quote from a famous war film The Guns of Navarone:
Anything can happen in a war. Slap in the middle of insanity, people pull out the most extraordinary resources – ingenuity, courage, self-sacrifice. Pity we can’t beat the problems of peace in the same way, isn’t it? It would be much cheaper.
Łobaczewski’s book is not easy reading, but he describes symptoms that are so familiar to us. When the loonies take over the asylum, or when evil people take over governments, the result becomes a totalitarian system turned against its own people. Those who are not wise to the changes, words mean different things. Absurd behaviour becomes normal. Orwell’s doublethink gets into mainstream life and perverts rational logic and moral values. Eventually, the population instinctively resist and bring down the regime. If another country does that in the population’s place, it is war.
Are our rulers in England psychopaths and evil people? Certainly the collective consciousness is marginalising and resisting people like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. The level of satire on Theresa May in the media and the Internet is healthy and shows that the British people are resisting the downward slope to hell. One thing that really stands out for me about Brexit and the refusal of our Government to call anything into question is the seeming inevitability of it all. Nothing can be called into question like when triumphalist Roman Catholics recited the old bit of doggerel Roma locuta est, causa finita est. The cause is not finished.
I love my country and I believe in our resilience as in times past.
Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints…
Many of my compatriots will go along with these archons of power, money and self-interest, believing that they are serving their country. Others will resist. I am one of them. There are bad people ruling from the corridors of power in Brussels too, in every country. All we can do is stave off the descent into evil for as long as possible and turn the tide.
“Nazism (apart from marginal groups of cranks) is clearly a thing of the past”, but I am grateful for Leopold Schwarzschild in World in Trance (1943) for getting me to think about which deplorable features of the Nazi regime were in continuity with preceding German and Prussian regimes.
Auden begins the second stanza of his “September 1, 1939”
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
Robert G. L. Waite borrowed or alluded to that last line in the title of his The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler (1977) – the appearance of which, and surrounding controversy, I well recall (but have never yet read the book).
I’m not sure what Auden means by “What huge imago made / A psychopathic god”, but placing that “psychopathic god” in the context of a long history “That has driven a culture mad” and attempting to attend to the continuities of or in that history, as Schwarzschild does, seems a good undertaking. Léon Bloy in L’Ame de Napoléon (1912) seems to see Louis XIV as a pale forerunner of Napoléon, in a grandiose French continuity.
George Rudé in Revolutionary Europe, 1783-1815 (1964) attends to how much the Code Napoleon is indebted to earlier Revolutionary legislation, and I’ve just reached the point in a biography which is also an account of the vicissitudes of the Principality of Lippe where, in 1810, the Hofmarschall hears from a friend in Holland that Napoleon has imposed a version of his Code there, and can reply that that has occurred in Lippe as well. I confronted its living heritage in trying to get married in the Netherlands, when it was blithely expected that I could produce documents demonstrating that I was not already married – not something found where the State does not minutely oversee and regulate as many aspects of one’s life!
I’m glad Great Britain eventually exerted itself to resist Napoleon – and with success, and see no perfidy in that (though the Treaty of Vienna seems pretty perfidious in various respects) – nor in the UK actually acting upon an express feature of its ‘contract’ to opt out of the EU. How well or wisely – or, again, perfidiously – those in power deal with the sequel, is another, weighty, matter.
Where “people like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg” are concerned, I don’t have the impression Mr. Johnson and Mr. Rees-Mogg are very like each other in various weighty respects, though in being minded to go through with acting upon that express feature of the ‘contract’ they seem not unlike each other.
I think the most important thing is to understand the central tenets of Nazism, which were to some extent a perversion of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch and the idea of the strong over the weak. It is a “social Darwinism”, the survival of the fittest, therefore sick people, “inferior races”, handicapped children, etc. have to be eliminated. The Untermensch is “sub-human”, so there is no moral stigma against killing such beings. This ideology was at its most blatant during the Nazi era, and the atrocities (concentration camps, mass executions, etc.) becoming known through the Nuremberg Trials discredited it. However, it was implicit in earlier forms of totalitarianism, including the Church and the Inquisition, the persecution of Jewish people and reverts to Islam. It is implicit today in British and American capitalism where the work ethic is reinforced by some forms of reformed Christianity. Poverty becomes a crime, and the “sub-human” loses all rights and no one cares. It is the antithesis of Christian humanism.
Though I did confidently say that Nazism is a thing of the past, the tenets of the ideology continue to lie just under the surface, and could be revived – only with a different appearance and propaganda language. It is implicit in “post-humanism” and in any persons or groups who think that the human population should be reduced by as much as 90% – though I am extremely wary of conspiracy theories. Nazism was also an organised crime cartel, and I see this possibility in the present British political establishment, if it is true that they want to sell the National Health Service to a private buyer – and make healthcare as unaffordable as in the USA.
Fr Anthony, with regards to the Nazis have a look at this, it is barely believable. A trio of hoaxers set out to write ridiculous academic papers in the jargon of radical queer theory or feminism, and had a number published in supposedly respectable journals – including one paper which was a chapter of Adolf’s Mein Kampf re-written in feminist jargon.
I have never yet caught up with Robert Bork’s Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline (1996), but remember a quotation of him to the effect about the resemblance of the current situation to – was it Nazism? – or Fascism? – but without the party organization. I do find a lot to think about in George Grant’s 1988 essay, The Triumph of the Will, and in his Time as History (1969) – which seems to be somewhere online at the CBC in its original broadcast form.
Mediaeval Christendom presents a lot of ‘complicated pictures’ – Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium (1970 ed.) and Europe’s Inner Demons (1975) are both interesting in this context, with, e.g., examples of Princes and Bishops variously resisting popular murderousness (I haven’t caught up with his Warrant for Genocide (1966), yet). So do the interactions of ‘secular authorities’, the wealthy, and various “forms of reformed Christianity” in Britain and America where, e.g., things like schools, hospitals, alms houses, food banks, and so on, are concerned. (I’ve never properly dug into Uncle Venner’s enthusiasm at the prospect of ending up in a workhouse, in Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851)!) It gets more complicated in the past century or so with, e.g., Dean Inge’s eugenic enthusiasms, Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics (1966), and what Grant calls the extensive buying into “sweet liberal killing” in the Anglican Church he joined.