Friday, April 6, 2018

Lenin and Mary: 1917: Red Banners, White Mantle


by Warren H. Carroll

This book appears on the list of supplemental history reading for the study on Russia and the Fall of Communism Level 4 history program at Mater Amabilis™. It is recommended to choose one of these supplemental books, many of which are historical fiction, to read over the six week study. I flipped through four or five of the options listed for the Russian study (ones our library had or that I purchased inexpensively) and, without reading any in full, choose 1917: Red Banners, White Mantle because it included information on Fatima, which otherwise we only touched on, and because the writing seemed particularly eloquent. As I read it, in fact, I found the writing so rich I created a list of words for First Son to look up each week before his reading. (He probably could have figured them out well enough to get by, but I wanted him to appreciate them.)

The Mater Amabilis™ page states this book is a "Catholic perspective on the events of 1917." That's clear from the very beginning of the book.
In the short November afternoon, Francis Joseph felt a great weakness coming upon him. He understood what it meant. He knew he faced death, and he knew death faced his empire, hard beset by the enormous, incalculable perils of a world disintegrating under the stresses of a conflict far more protracted and cosmically destructive than anyone had imagined possible. And he knew the quality of the radiant young couple who had visited with him that morning: their goodness, their hope, their relative innocence, their inexperience, their crystal simplicity of purpose and conviction, but with scarcely a trace of the touch of the ruthless which is very close to being necessary in a temporal ruler in the fallen world.
The book covers, in chronological and detailed order, the events on the World War I battlefields, in the fields of Fatima, and in Russia from December 1916 (after a few preliminary chapters) through December 1917, with a chapter to briefly describe pertinent events through the death of Lenin.

Carroll does not shy away from descriptions of the horrific war or the madness of its beginning and repeated refusals of diplomats to come to peaceable solutions.
These gigantic losses were not suffered in a struggle for some overriding moral or religious principle or right that might not be sacrificed at any cost. Except for one small country, Belgium, the war did not involve any nation's essential freedom or existence. It was a war of fronts in border regions, a war of trenches and attrition, a war that pitted the deadly machine gun against unprotected human flesh. 
His description of Lenin:
Lenin was not a monster. He had a happy childhood, his parents taught him Christian morality (though he rejected it), he loved music and the countryside; he could even care genuinely for people when they did not get in his way. But over and through and above all else throbbed the pounding power of his relentless will, fixed immovably on the revolution, to be achieved by any means, at any cost.
While the author's descriptions of the people and events of the book are riveting, it's sometimes difficult to discern how much those descriptions are shaped by the author's opinions rather than facts. For example, a significant part of his description of the actions of Emperor Charles and Empress Zita upon hearing of Germany's return to unrestricted submarine warfare is based on Zita's remembrances many years later. That doesn't make it untrue, of course, merely weakly supported by the evidence he quotes if one were disinclined to believe Empress Zita. Later, he describes President Woodrow Wilson's re-election.
Thomas Woodrow Wilson, the former professor who had first been elected President of the United States when two opponents split the vote against him and was then re-elected by an eyelash because his opponent forgot to shake the hand of the Governor of California, is one of the most improbable figures in Americn [sic] political history.
That seemed surprising to me, so I researched a little, trying to wade through websites online. It seems Hughes (running against Wilson) did neglect to shake the California governor's hand, but it might have been more deliberate than it seems from this statement. Also, while the election was close, it seems unlikely that was the only reason Wilson won and rather flippant of the author to suggest it was.

The book presents a rather confusing series of diplomatic negotiations, with many different people involved. I found an article at 1914-1918 Online that helped me understand exactly what was happening. I added it to a page of notes for First Son as well. The article views Charles's attempts at negotiations more as a result of the ravages of war suffered by his country than his professed desire for peace for all Christendom, which is the view presented by Carroll. It seems likely to me it was both and historians choose to emphasize one or the other as they lean themselves.

The author only touches briefly on the horrors experienced outside Petrograd as the peasants were provoked into violent action by Communist agitators.
The full story of the ensuing horror has never been, and probably never will be told. It is composed of ten thousand local tragedies of burning and looting and smashing and killing, of old scores settles [sic] and envy slaked, of just and imaginary grievances all jumbled together and avenged in blood and ashes, each one a bit in a mosaic which it has never served anyone's interest to assemble, and for which most of the needed records either never existed, or vanished in the cataclysm.
Even as I neared the end of the book, I found it difficult to discern the relationship Carroll was attempting to draw between the apparitions at Fatima and the events as they occurred in Russia. He would make these kinds of grand sweeping statements:
The war that came upon the world from 1914 to 1918 was not only a war of men and nations, generals and armies, monarchs and revolutionaries. The legions and the powers of Heaven and of Hell were engaged as well, as well-attested events from December 1916 to October 1917 clearly show to those with eyes to see, and ears to hear.
The author seemed to believe they were clear, but other than the chronology and the reflections written some twenty years later by someone who was a sometimes frightened and impressionable child, I don't think he made his case very well. I am not saying the apparitions at Fatima did not occur or that the documentation of them made later were inaccurate, just that this book did not seem to explain exactly what effect the prayers of the children and believers at Fatima had on the events in Russia.
It remained to be seen how many, even yet, would hear and heed her words and help her by their prayers, and by lives more pleasing to God, to change the course of history--to convert the Russia which was about to fall into Lenin's grasp.
But...what was the effect? Is he arguing it would have been worse? Or that the people did not sacrifice and pray enough? Or that we should be continuing to sacrifice and pray for the people suffering under Communism in the USSR (in 1981, when the book was published)? I couldn't tell!

Only in one place, late in the book, does he refer to one possibility. Carroll was writing of how Lenin thought all of Europe, and then the world, would revolt and become Communist in the wake of the horrors of World War I.
His euphoria was somewhat premature, even in light of what he did surely know and reasonably suspect. But he was not so far wrong as nearly everyone since has tended to think. There is good reason to believe that the Western world stood very close to final catastrophe in that ghastly autumn of 1917. How many more Passchendaeles could any nation, however disciplined and loyal to its leaders, have endured without breaking? We may presume that no inconsiderable part in preventing that ultimate collapse was played by the prayers offered for peace--by Pope Benedict XV, by the children of Fatima offering their daily rosary for peace as the Lady had asked, by the suffering and the dying, by the victims of the rural terror in Russian, and by millions more throughout Europe and the world.
So, we are presumably to believe that the prayers of Fatima offered in response to Mary's request, did save the world from a massive Communist movement that would have begun in Russia and enveloped the world. There's no way to argue against that and it might very well be true, but it was odd to me that this was the only instance where he mentioned what might have been an outcome. There are other times when he points out how Lenin's plans nearly fell apart (like when he was not arrested the night before the revolution in October, despite being stopped by two mounted officers while wandering the streets without papers). It would be just as easy (thought not in line with the rest of the book) to argue that the prayers of the faithful benefitted the revolution.

Warren talks about how Woodrow Wilson, in his speech asking Congress to declare war, said it was necessary in order to help bring democracy and freedom to the world. Warren contends that almost the opposite occurred.
The principal historical consequence of World War I was to be the establishment, as far into the future as human eyes can see, of the most fearful, pervasive, far-flung tyranny in the history of mankind--a tyranny so gigantic and so evil that, in the end, only the Mother of God in person can conquer it.
A powerful statement, and one that might be interesting to consider: Was the most important consequence of World War I the rise of communism in Russia, especially given Germany's obvious use of Lenin as a disruptive agent delivered to Russia? It's seems a different argument then to move from that to Mary being the only one who can conquer it.

There are clear references to Rasputin's debauchery and lewdness that would be inappropriate for some younger readers. Additionally, descriptions of the trench warfare are also graphic and horrific, as befits the war.

Here's a link to the Google Doc I made for First Son with a list of vocabulary to check before reading and some articles of interest. I divided the book into five readings and planned for him to read one each week. That gave us some leeway, which we ended up needing when his World War II book (the unit just before this one) went a week over.

I am glad I read this book as I found it an interesting and engaging account of the events of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. I have assigned it to First Son, though I didn't finish it before he started it. Having now read the whole book, I will leave the assignments as they are, though I'm not convinced I'll assign it to the other children. I think that will depend on discussions I may have with First Son about it. There's nothing overtly wrong with the book, but I feel like the author makes vast statements without adequate support and I'm not sure how that may come across to a Level 4 student. Will First Son believe it all at face value? Is it necessary that he does not? I don't know! Unless there are some amazing discussions around this book, I'll probably choose something else as there are lots of other options. But we'll see.

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