The Right Coast

May 09, 2005
More Crusading, or, God Will Know His Own
By Maimon Schwarzschild

A few further thoughts on the crusades and European Christendom. (For those of you who had enough from Tom Smith and me on this subject last week, forgive us, and scroll on.)

First, some points on which I agree with Tom. I think the liberal democracies of the West -- most of them Christian or post-Christian -- today represent a good way of life, not perfect of course, but almost certainly the best way of life on a large scale that there has ever been. The enemies of the West offer alternatives that are much, much worse, if they offer anything at all. I count the Communists and Nazis as having been such enemies: they had Western roots, but they saw themselves as enemies of the West, which I believe they were. Today, the enemies of the West –- both within and without –- are my enemies.

I agree that Christianity is, or was, crucial in creating the West. As such, it may indeed be difficult to know what “that's valuable in European civilisation could or would have evolved without it”.

Tom goes on to argue that the Crusades, and all the Christian wars against Islam, made possible the West as we know it today.

But Christendom surely has a very mixed secular history. When it comes to political institutions, I’m not sure it’s the West as such that I admire, so much as what the English speaking world has created, and exported (more or less successfully) around the world. The older democracies in Continental Europe, such as they were, developed mostly along very anti-clerical lines; and apart from a few small ones like Switzerland and Scandinavia, they were notably fragile. In the past century, on the other hand, English-speaking institutions have been very influential, including in those parts of Continental Europe and the Far East where they were basically introduced by force of arms. Which political institutions and cultures in Christendom, without roots in the Anglosphere, does Tom particularly admire? Feudal Europe? The Bourbons? The Concert of Vienna? The Spanish and Portuguese empires, whose successor states in Latin America and the Phillipines are corruption-ridden and deeply troubled to this day?

Isn’t it asking a lot to solicit support for the Christian side in every battle in the past thousand years, regardless of what the Christian side actually did, on the grounds that it all somehow “led to” English liberty many centuries later?

It's not as though the Crusades, and Christendom's later religious wars, weren't lethal on what you might call a twentieth century scale. The Crusader massacres devastated the Jewish communities of Europe: many communities like Mainz were slaughtered to the last man, woman, and child. The Crusaders' slaughter of Eastern Christians in Constantinople was just as horrific. Later, the 16th and 17th century Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants are reckoned to have killed fully one-third of the German speaking peoples in Europe, as well as countless others. This sort of death toll is enviable even by Stalin's standards. Stalin's Communism killed tens of millions -- in peacetime -- and brought untold suffering, but even he didn't kill 1/3 of the people of the USSR.

There is the famous story from the French crusades of the Catholic captain who captured a town in the south of France that was mostly -- but not entirely -- "heretic". The Duke who commanded the captain had made it known that all heretics should be slaughtered whenever possible. The captain asked the Duke, now that he had taken the town, how he should distinguish the Catholics from the heretics. "Kill them all", said the Duke suavely, "God will know His own."

So, was Christian warfare against “Mohammedanism” -- if not the Crusades proper, then in later centuries -- a Good Thing in the long view? Who can know how things would have turned out if history had taken a different turn or two?

Bernard Lewis, the historian of Islam, points out the perennial conflict within Islam between urban civilisation on the one hand, usually fairly tolerant and often with a superb high culture, and the desert ethos on the other, puritanical, hostile to urban sophistication, and geared towards war against any and all infidels. If Islam had prevailed, or even held its own better, in its wars with the Christians, how would things have developed? Might the Muslim "city" have prevailed in turn, far better than it has in fact, over the Muslim "desert"?

What about English democracy? Would it never have happened? Edward Gibbon has a passage about how Oxford might have become an Islamic seminary, with the muezzeins calling the faithful to prayer from the dreaming spires of the Oxford colleges. But he was at least partly teasing, as usual.

As for me, I don't how to judge things on a thousand-year perspective. Did the bloodbaths of the crusades, or for that matter the devastation of the Jews of Spain in the 1300s and 1400s, "lead to" Parliamentary democracy in Saskatchewan and the Securities and Exchange Commission? I go for democracy and the West, pugnaciously and even fervently. That includes Saskatchewan and the SEC. But I can only judge the crusades -- and the "reconquista" and the Wars of Religion -- for what they were. The eighteenth century Enlightenment, whose ideas were so important to the American Founders, took a dim view of all these things. A horrified view, in fact. Me too.