Australasian Sketcher. 1880

aus sk.jpg

17 January


Wild dogs watching kangaroos by moonlight


31 January



Selectors clearing the forest


A Victorian selector’s homestead

The first thing a selector does, after having obtained his occupation licence, is to build a hut of bark or slabs, and to enclose a small paddock with a temporary fence for his horses and bullocks. Then begins the work of splitting posts and rails for the fence that is to surround his selection, and this having been completed, the great task of clearing the land begins. It requires, indeed, a strong arm and stout heart to settle in the wild forest, where the timber grows to an enormous size, and the scrub and undergrowth are so dense that a man in many places can hardly push his way through. From sunrise to sunset the selector’s axe  can be heard ringing through the forest, and very often on moonlight nights, after he has had his evening meal, he turns to work again far into the night, burning logs and debris that have been dragged together during the day with the aid of bullocks.

14 February


The Melbourne Exchange, Collins Street


Shipping wheat at Sandridge pier for England


The subject of federation of the colonies, after having been on the shelf for some time, has of late been taken dawn, dusted and presented as a live topic of discussion, by two review articles from the pen of Sir Henry Parkes and the Hon. Mr. Douglas of Queensland. Sir Henry Parkes contended that federation or legislative union of the colonies, instead of being a difficult matter, was easy of attainment, and could, as far as the three colonies of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia were concerned, be reached within a year or so desired.  Sir H. Parkes did not explain the details of the process by which this end was to be attained and, indeed, it is evident that the matter is one, the whole difficult of which lies in these insignificant details. Mr. Douglas took a different view of the question. He […] argued that when time was right the foundations of an Australian nation should be laid by the union of all the colonies. Mr. Douglas took the view that the colonies should be contented with nothing less than “nationality” and further contended that to obtain this complete independence was essential. Thus he looked on to separation from the Empire as one of the preliminary steps f Australian consolidation and nationality.

10 April


Lady students at the university : A glimpse of the future

The recent admission of ladies to the privileges of the Melbourne University has inspired our artist to take a dip into the future a good deal further than human eye can see. He has embodied his visions in some sketches showing some of the possible developments of the change lately inaugurated. But the portrait of Miss Caroline Ann Marion Boyd, the first lady who matriculated and became a member of the University, does not come under the category of prophetic views, but represents a very pleasing reality. This young lady is a native of Victoria, having  been born at Sandhurst […] The privilege granted by the council of allowing ladies to graduate came into operation on the 22nd. of last month
Miss. Boyd made – application on the 23rd, undertook the necessary obligations, and matriculated as a student thereby becoming the first lady student of the Melbourne University. Passing to the anticipative sketches, we have one raising the question. ‘Are there to be Lady Professors ? and giving the portraits of three professoresses’. Then we have lady students ‘At Study,’ while perambulating the grounds, and ‘ Their Alma Mater,’ a fierce’ looking old professoress in cap and gown.

22 May


It must be admitted, we think, by every competent and impartial person that the Empire of Great Britain, has reached a point where it behoves her statesmen to look around them and see what can be done for the organisation and federation of that mighty realm. The great empire, which has vast territories in every quarter of the globe, has grown up in a fortuitous manner and its texture bears every mark of its loose, occasional origin. No attempt has been made to give organic shape to a huge assemblage of dependencies: The result is, that we have a large number of rapidly-growing, wealthy, high-spirited communities, which are jealous to a fault of any interference from outside, united to the home country by a tie which has no regular connexion, with the constitutional Governments of those communities.

The home Legislature and Government have no means of imposing their decisions on any of the self-governing colonies, and the colonies have no lot or share in the counsels of the home Government, though their fate may be seriously influenced by its decisions and its actions. The Governments of the colonies and of the empire are in no relation whatever.


The view of Daylesford

5 June


The Queen’s Birthday: hoisting the royal standard on Government House




A meet of the Melbourne Bicycle Club

There has of late been a great extension of the interest in bicycling in Melbourne, due in large degree perhaps to the admirable quality and efficiency of the bicycles that have been introduced. The Melbourne Bicycle Club now numbers about 40 members, and holds occasional races, and organises long expeditions. Our illustration depicts a recent meet of the club at Brighton.

19 June


Chinese furniture makers, Little Burke Street


‘Tween decks in an intercolonial steamer


The Chinese question is one which is always turning up. We have it always with us. Sometimes we think we are rid of it, and that it is fairly laid or proved to be a mere nullity, and then comes a shuffle of political cards, or some industrial incident, that brings it back to us in full force. It seems curious that it should be so when we reflect on the very small number of Chinese in these colonies by which the panic is occasioned […] In Melbourne, where there has been some fitful agitation on the subject, the Chinese artisans by which the panic has been produced number, according to the closest estimates, only 60 or 70.

17 July


Liverpool Street, Hobart Town


The new Adelaide Exchange

31 July


Blackfellows spearing eels, Gipps Land

20 November


Last scene of the Kelly drama: the criminal on the scaffold

… executions are private in Victoria, and usually take place in the Melbourne Gaol. The part of the gaol where they take place is in what we call the transept of one of the buildings. The culprit on the night before execution is placed in the condemned cell on the second tier of cells, and the door of the cell opens on to the gallery running round the building. A beam is fixed across the recess, and a few steps from the door of the cell take the culprit on to the drop and below this beam. The fall of the drop allows the body to descend through the floor of the gallery, a distance of about 8ft.


Review on the Prince of Wales’s Birthday


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My personal list of 100 best novels ever written


Ivo Andrić The Bridge on the Drina
Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice
Honoré de Balzac Eugenie Grandet 
                     Le Père Goriot 
                     Cousin Bette
                     Lost Illusions
Emily Brontë Wuthering Heights
Mikhail Bulgakov The Master and Margarita
Albert Camus The Plague
Elias Canetti Auto-da-Fe
Louis-Ferdinand Celine Journey to the End of the Night
Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote
J.M. Coetzee Youth 
                     The Life and Times of Michael K
Joseph Conrad Nostromo
                       Heart of Darkness
                       The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’
                       The Secret Agent
                       Lord Jim
Daniel Defoe Robinson Crusoe
Charles Dickens Oliver Twist
                     Great Expectations
Alfred Doblin Berlin Alexanderplatz
John Dos Passos U.S.A.
Fedor Dostoevsky The Brothers Karamazov
                       Crime and Punishment
                       The Devils
                       The Idiot
Alexandre Dumas pere The Three Musketeers
George Eliot Middlemarch
William Faulkner The Sound and the Fury
F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby
Gustave Flaubert Madame Bovary
Theodor Fontane Effi Briest
Andre Gide The Vatican Cellars
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe The Sufferings of Young Werther

William Golding Lord of the Flies

Nikolai Gogol Dead Souls
Witold Gombrowicz Ferdydurke
Ivan Goncharov Oblomov
Gunter Grass The Tin Drum

Vasily Grossman Life and Fate 
Knut Hamsun Hunger
Thomas Hardy Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Jaroslav Hašek The Good Soldier Švejk
Nathaniel Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter
Hermann Hesse Steppenwolf
Victor Hugo The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
                     Les Miserables
Joris-Karl Huysmans A rebours
Aldous Huxley Brave New World
Henry James The Golden Bowl
                       The Portrait of a lady
James Joyce Ulysses 
Franz Kafka The Castle
                       The Trial
Gottfried Keller Green Henry
Choderlos de Laclos Les Liaisons dangereuses
Tomasi di Lampedusa The Leopard
Mikhail Lermontov A Hero Of Our Time
Sinclair Lewis Main Street
Jack London Martin Eden
Naguib Mahfouz Cairo Trilogy
Thomas Mann Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family
                        Doctor Faustus
                        The Magic Mountain
Alessandro Manzoni The Betrothed
Vladimir Nabokov Lolita
Gabriel Garcia Marquez One Hundred Years of Solitude
Herman Melville Moby-Dick
Robert Musil The Man Without Qualities
George Orwell Nineteen Eighty-Four
Boris Pasternak Doctor Zhivago
Abbe Prevost Manon Lescaut
Marcel Proust Remembrance of Things Past
Bolesław Prus The Doll
Erich Maria Remarque All Quiet on the Western Front

Henry Handel Richardson The Fortunes of Richard Mahony
Joseph Roth The Radetzky March
Marquis de Sade Justine
Isaac Bashevis Singer The Family Moskat
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Cancer Ward
John Steinbeck The Grapes of Wrath
Stendhal Scarlet and Black
                        The Charterhouse of Parma
Laurence Sterne Tristram Shandy
Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels
Lev Tolstoi Anna Karenina
                       War And Peace
Ivan Turgenev Fathers and Sons
                       Virgin Soil
                       On the Eve
Mark Twain The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Jules Verne Around The World In Eighty Days
Edith Wharton The Age of Innocence
Marguerite Yourcenar Memoirs of Hadrian
Evgenii Zamiatin We
Emile Zola Thérèse Raquin
Arnold Zweig The Case of Sergeant Grischa


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Polish painting in the interbellum. 30 paintings



Tymon Niesiolowski Bathing, 1919


Roman Kramsztyk Portrait of Jan Lechon, 1919




 Zbigniew Pronaszko Two Nudes, 1919




 Tytus Czyżewski Nude with Cat, 1920




Witkacy Chopping wood. Fight,1921




Tadeusz Pruszkowski Melancholy, 1925



Leon Chwistek Feast, 1925




Mieczysław Szczuka Self portrait with a palette, 1920





Louis Marcoussis A Slice of Watermelon, 1927





Eugeniusz Zak, Pierrot



 Jan Gotard Drunkard, 1928

 Ludomir Slendzinski, Grający w guziki, 1928

Ludomir Sledzinski Playing in buttons, 1928





 Tamara de Lempicka My portrait, 1929





Wladyslaw Strzeminski, Architectural Composition 13, c. 1929





Marie Mela Muter Expressionist Landscape





Zygmunt Menkes Girl with Mandolin





Tadeusz Makowski Children’s theatre, 1931




Rajmund Kanelba Young boy in red hat





Janina Konarska Narty, 1931





Wacław Borowski Summer, 1930





  Henryk Berlewi Two men, 1930




 Zygmunt Waliszewski  Island of love


Stanisław Szukalski House of witches, 1933


Zofia Stryjeńska Pageant of Slavic Months


Wladyslaw Skoczylas Laundresses


Artur Markowicz Blessing of the new moon the moon, 1933


Leopold Gottlieb Women and tulip, 1934




Antoni Michalak Portrait of Wanda Hoffman, 1936




 Bolesław Cybis Primavera, 1936


Moise Kisling Portrait with a collar, 1938



Jan Zamoyski Girl with rooster, 1939


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Costume in art

In modern societies, only the poorest wear clothes solely to get protection from elements. All other social groups treat clothes as a medium to send a message to others about one’s identity, social status and aspirations. People are free to wear what they want and they often use that power to engage, seduce or provoke. Governments regulate only what its agents wear although strict penalties apply to breaches of regulations on uniforms worn by the police and the army.

In Europe, the erotic element of dress can hardly be overestimated and clothes have always been worn as much to cover the body as to reveal it. Eroticism of costume is even present in religious art which provides evidence of Christianitas being close to humanitas. It is quite surprising to see so much nudity in pre-Reformation religious painting. What is being celebrated here, the divine or the human?



Joos van Cleve The Holy Family, about 1525 


In traditional societies, strict rules apply to what one can wear in public. In such societies, costume is believed to have magical qualities. Individuals do not have discretion as to what to wear as the rules related to dress were supposedly declared once and for all by God. You are what you wear and no dissent is tolerated.

Traditional Judaism and Islam are iconoclastic and they have prescriptive and proscriptive rules on dressing of particular severity. As there is no divine sanction for colour, embellishments and patterns from nature, people often wear clothes covering almost all their bodies, and only white and black colours are acceptable.




 Lucien Levy-Dhurmer Evening Promenade, 1930

In Europe, art bifurcated at Reformation and costume also reflects this phenomenon. Rococo, with its extravagant skirts and barely covered bosoms, is limited to Catholic countries. With the exception of the Calvinist Dutch Republic, Reformation – being iconoclastic – stifled artistic expression in visual arts. Pre-Raphaelites are no match for Impressionists.

Reformation introduced puritanism into people’s lives. Paradoxically, even today some paintings from several centuries ago would be considered too risqué even in our permissive times.




 Jean Honore Fragonard Young Woman Playing with a Dog, between 1765 and 1772


In the second part of the seventeenth century and in the eighteenth century, extravagance in costume reached absurd levels. In England, during the Restoration, women used the seductive power of costume to its full potential. James Robinson Planché writes in History of British costume that

Charles II’s beauties were the very reverse of their mothers in dress as in demeanour. The starched ruff, the steeple-crowned hat, the rigid stomacher, and the stately fardingale were banished with the gravity and morality of their wearers. A studied negligence, an elegant deshabille, is the prevailing character of the costume in which they are nearly all represented.

Puritanic sobriety and austerity gave way to ostentatious display and flamboyancy in shapes and colours but it all ended with the ascendance of the Prince of Orange, a Protestant, to the throne as William III in 1689.

In France, frivolous gaiety took many shapes, including elaborate pastoral simplicity of noble men and women pretending to be shepherds and shepherdesses. The French Revolution destroyed this world. It all started with Rousseau who initiated a new trend in culture and politics by claiming that civilisation has corrupting power. His ideas became reality during the French Revolution. Gone were fetes champetres and fetes galantes, replaced by republican austerity and simplicity. Napoleon chose to copy the Romans in costume, furniture and architecture. The end of feudalism marked the end of the world as theatrum mundi and people behaving as if acting in a play, with appropriate costumes.



 Francois Boucher The Toilet



 Nicolas Lancret La Camargo dancing

Revolution in politics was also a revolution in costume. King Louis XVI was executed wearing the simplest possible garment. He was stripped of all the vestiges of power and died as citizen Capet.



The standard simplicity of masculine costume worn today dates from the French Revolution, writes R. Turner Wilcox in The Mode in Costume.

The nineteenth century was a period of conservatism in costume and mores, particularly in England while the beginning of the twentieth century was also the beginning of a period of costume becoming simpler, more practical and more functional until almost everyone wore denim trousers. Jeans are nowadays worn by men and women, rich and poor, and young and old.

James Laver writes in The Concise History of Costume that a fundamental change occurred in the 1960:

[young men] no longer care about formality and are no longer concerned to “dress like a gentleman”. In other words, the idea of gentility which kept men’s clothes almost static for the last 150 years is no longer accepted; and this represents a real revolution in manners.


Costume plays a special role in art because it gives the artist an opportunity to show his craft. For that reason, the history of art is also the history of costume and this phenomenon can be illustrated by the following paintings and other art objects:




Woman of Willendorf, between 28,000 and 25,000 BC


Sumerian Statuette, from the Temple of Abu, Tel Asmar, c. 2700 – 2600 BC

persian archers

Persian Archers, Susa, fifth- fourth BC


King Tut and his wife Ankhesenamun, c. 1332–1323 BC 


The snake goddess, from the palace of Knossos, c. 1600 BC


So-called Athena Pacifique, c. 130-90 BC


Girl from Verona, Italy. Roman copy of a Greek original, 1 century


Mosaic from the Villa Romana del Casale, fourth century AD

Mosaic of Theodora’s Procession with Retinue, San Vitale, Ravenna, c. 546 CE
Sclavinia, Germania, Gallia, and Roma, bringing offerings to Otto III; 990.

Limbourg brothers The Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry c. 1412 and 1416




Jan van Eyck The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434

Raphael The Mass at Bolsena (detail), between 1512 and 1514 
François Clouet King Charles IX of France, 1566.
 Hans Holbein Henry VIII, 1509
Unknown Portrait of Elizabeth I , 1588
Robert Peake the Elder (attributed) Procession portrait of Elizabeth I of England, c. 1600
Peter Paul Rubens The Artist and His First Wife, Isabella Brant, 1610 

Frans Hals , Cavalier soldier, 1624


Rembrandt Portrait of a Woman, 1632

 Anthony van Dyck Portrait of an Unknown lady, 1634-35
Anthony van Dyck Lord John Stuart and his brother Lord Bernard Stuart, 1637/8

Diego Velázquez Infanta Margarita Teresa in White Garb, 1656




Frans Hals Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse, 1664


Giovanni Battista Tiepolo Young Lady in a Tricorn Hat, c. 1755/1760

 Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, 1767


Thomas Gainsborough Mr and Mrs Andrews, 1750

Francois Gérard Madame Recamier, 1802


Philipp Otto Runge, The Hülsenbeck Children, 1805-06


Carl Spitzweg, TheWidower, 1844






Dominique Ingres Mme Moitessier, 1856




James McNeill Whistler At the Piano, 1858–59





Mother and Children


Pierre Auguste Renoir Mother Strolling with her Children, 1875

William Powell Frith, A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1883
Georges Seurat A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, 1884
Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street, Rainy Day, 1877
Edouard Manet, Music in the Tuileries Garden, 1862 
Edgar Degas, A Cotton Office in New Orleans, 1872-73
Pierre Auguste Renoir, La Loge, 1874
Claude Monet La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume), 1876
Vincent van Gogh Portrait of père Tanguy, 1887
Mary Cassatt Margot in Blue, 1902
Boldini, Lady admiring Fan
Joan Miró Portrait of Enric Cristofol Ricart, 1917
Grosz Grey Day, 1921
Marc Chagall The Praying Jew (Rabbi of Vitebsk), 1914
Tamara de Lempicka Portrait of the Duchess de la Salle, 1925
Erte Charleston Couple
Balthus Thérèse Dreaming, 1938
Adolf Wissel, Peasant Family from Kahlenberg, 1939
Rudolf Hermann Eisenmenger ?
Felix Nussbaum Self Portrait with Jewish Identity Card, 1943
Diego Rivera Portrait of Natasha Gelman, 1943
Edward Hopper, Conference At Night,  1949

John Brack Men’s wear 1953

David Hockney, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, 1970–71

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Two German poems

(an anonymous poem written as a tribute to Hitler and published in 1935)




Nun schwenkt er sie im Wind, schwenkt sie mit Macht,

Und lasst sein Rufen hailen durch die Nacht.

Da horchen all die alten Kampfer auf,

Die deutsche Jugend rottet sich zu Hauf.


Er schwenkt die Fahne, schwenkt sie hin und her,

Er ruft die deutschen Manner ins Gewehr.

Er schwenkt die Fahne hoch, schwenkt sie mit Macht

Und lasst die Trommeln wirbeln in der Nacht.


Paul Celan Todesfuge 




Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
wir trinken und trinken
wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland
dein goldenes Haar Margarete

er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne
er pfeift seine Rüden herbei
er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde
er befiehlt uns spielt auf nun zum Tanz

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich morgens und mittags wir trinken dich abends
wir trinken und trinken
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland
dein goldenes Haar Margarete
Dein aschenes Haar Sulamith

wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng

Er ruft stecht tiefer ins Erdreich ihr einen ihr andern singet und spielt
er greift nach dem Eisen im Gurt er schwingts seine Augen sind blau
stecht tiefer die Spaten ihr einen ihr anderen spielt weiter zum Tanz auf

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich mittags und morgens wir trinken dich abends
wir trinken und trinken
ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith er spielt mit den Schlangen

Er ruft spielt süßer den Tod der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
er ruft streicht dunkler die Geigen dann steigt ihr als Rauch in die Luft
dann habt ihr ein Grab in den Wolken da liegt man nicht eng

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich mittags der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
wir trinken dich abends und morgens wir trinken und trinken
der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland sein Auge ist blau
er trifft dich mit bleierner Kugel er trifft dich genau
ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
er hetzt seine Rüden auf uns er schenkt uns ein Grab in der Luft
er spielt mit den Schlangen und träumet der Tod ist ein Meister aus

dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith


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Robespierre and Danton


Can virtue be imposed on societies from above? What is the role of the state? What is a better model for modern societies, Athens or Sparta? Is there a place for idealism in politics?

The problem of idealism and pragmatism in politics can be studied is its purest form by analysing the French Revolution. The conflict between Robespierre and Danton is a battle of ideas, the manifestation of the clash of idealism and pragmatism which took murderous proportions. It led both protagonists to their deaths on the guillotine.


Maximilien Robespierre had no doubt that nothing was more desirable than a virtuous society.

In our country we want to substitute morality for egoism, honesty for honour, principles for customs, duties for decorum, the rule of reason for the tyranny of custom, the contempt of vice for the contempt of misfortune, pride for insolence, magnanimity for vanity, love of glory for love of money, good people for well-bred people, merit for intrigue, genius for wit, truth for pompous action, warmth of happiness for boredom of sensuality, greatness of man for pettiness of the great; a magnanimous, powerful, happy people for a polite, frivolous, despicable people.

Robespierre was inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau who in Social Contract unveiled a matrix for a harmonious society in which all possible virtues are being practised. Robespierre is a Rousseauvian par excellence:

I want to follow your venerable path, though I may leave nothing but a name of which centuries to come shall be wholly incurious. I shall be happy if, in the perilous course that an unprecedented revolution has just opened up before us, I remain constantly faithful to the inspiration that I have from your writings.

One could argue that the first phase of the revolution was the incarnation of the ideas of Montesquieu, exposed in De l’esprit des lois, while the second stage was the embodiment of Rousseau’s Social Contract. The revolution could have stopped at the first stage with France becoming a constitutional monarchy. Montesquieu was a pragmatist who was primarily interested in balancing competing interests of various social groups. He believed that such a balance could be achieved by the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers.

Rousseau had a completely different perspective on society. He advocated the total sovereignty of the state whose apparatus was the emanation of the will of the people. The general will was one and indivisible. Once properly recognised, there was no need for checks and balances in the political system because the realisation of the general will would lead to universal happiness of the people living in a harmonious society.

Norman Hampson writes in The French Revolution that Rousseau:

… was primarily a moralist and what distinguished his converts was crusading enthusiasm that looked like fanaticism to the unconverted … he naturally advocated for the republican type of society the opposite of what Montesquieu had thought appropriate to the monarchy. Everything should be so organised as to enhance the effectiveness of the moral will of the community as a whole …. his was an authoritarian democracy.

Is it still the Enlightenment or the beginning of Romanticism in politics?

Robespierre was a political maximalist, driven by the desire to shape the society according to Rousseauvian principles. The goal was the Republic of Virtue and there was no sacrifice big enough to divert Robespierre from this path. For him, ideas preceded reality which was moulded by visionary men of great will. Robespierre was a visionary politician – Manichaean and millenarist. Those who did not share his views were the enemies of the republic and had to be physically eliminated. During the revolution, the guillotine became a tool of political pedagogy.

Robespierre was a gardener. His garden was the French society, his ideas were seeds which had to be fertilised by blood, and dead branches had be cut off lest they poison the body politic. Only then the Republic of Virtue would blossom. Revolutionary violence was methodical, purposeful and impersonal. The fate of individuals mattered only as much as they acted according to the Zeitgeist. The bigger the goal of the revolution, the greater the acceptance of the means leading to it. Hence the ferocity and radicalism of the revolution.


Murder was a political necessity. King Louis XVI had to die because he was not only the monarch but the monarchy itself. For the institution to die, he had to die as a an individual. An then his wife, Marie Antoinette, had to die too. Their 10-year old son, Louis Charles, died in prison, officially from tuberculosis. The revolution eliminated those whom Parisian women called “the baker, the baker’s wife, and the baker’s son” (because they meant to guarantee the supply of bread to the populace). Robespierre insisted that “Louis must die so that the nation may live”. The murder was necessary for subjects to be turned into citizens. Regicide cemented the Revolution by making those who voted in favour of the king’s death the accomplices of the murder – they knew well that the royalists would hunt them mercilessly if given the chance. This was the case of solidarity of murderers.

Regicide also created a point of no return. The dead king could not be liberated by royalists and restored to power. The murder of the divinely anointed monarch marked the beginning of a new world. Monarchy was first desacralised and then eliminated so the Republic could be sacralised. A new calendar was introduced. The year of 1792, when the Republic was proclaimed, was the first year of the new world not only for France but also for all humanity. There was no longer divine sanction for politics which was replaced by metaphysical sanction coming from the will of the people.

Robespierre was surprisingly open about the use of terror to institute the Republic of Virtue.

If the strength of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the strength of popular government in revolution is both virtue and terror; terror without virtue is disastrous, virtue without terror is powerless. Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue.

It seems that Robespierre sought God’s kingdom on earth. He was not an atheist – his vision was to seek secularised eschatology but he found little understanding for his attempt to elevate Reason to the sphere of metaphysics. Reason was celebrated in mass gatherings but without enthusiasm among the populace.

The revolution was a case of self-radicalisation at an ever increasing pace. For Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, stagnation meant decay and only a permanent and ever accelerating movement could prevent revolution from ossification and failure.

Robespierre was no doubt a monster … or was he?


Robespierre believed that his motivation was pure. He devoted his life to the well-being of the people. He sacrificed his personal life to the realisation of Rousseau’s vision of the General Will realising itself in politics and social arrangements.

Historian Marisa Linton believes that Robespierre was unfairly treated by history. He was not solely responsible for terror because France was ruled at that time by a collective body composed of nine, and later of twelve, members, the Committee of Public Safety. She stresses the fact that Robespierre was initially a humanitarian who even advocated the abolition of the capital punishment. In her view, the dynamics of the revolution forced Robespierre to behave like he did. The Republic was under existential threat from within and from outside and extraordinary circumstances required extraordinary measures. Royalists, noblemen, refractory priests and foreign powers – all conspired to kill the republican ideal. For the revolutionary leaders, it was the case of exterminating the enemies of the Republic or be exterminated by them. They saw themselves as defenders of the people. Linton’s revisionist plea is not entirely convincing because the terror reached its peak when the external and internal threats subsided. She also ascribes to Robespierre rational motivation while he could equally be seen as a Romantic hero in whose personality everything was in excess.

Robespierre longs for the unattainable. His excessive attachment to morality makes him ruthless and immoral. He wants to turn ordinary bread-eaters into angels even against their own will.

Stanislawa Przybyszewska also tries to rehabilitate Robespierre in her play The Danton Case. Robespierre is here a tragic hero. He sacrifices himself to a social and political project of such magnitude that individual lives matter little in the process of creating the Republic of Virtue. Seen from the perspective of later developments in Europe, one can indeed regret that the revolutionary leaders did not succeed in destroying feudalism.

The nineteenth century was to some extent the lost century, at least in some parts of Europe. Conservative and reactionary forces managed to restore many aspects of the ancient regime such as hereditary monarchies, aristocratic titles and rigid social divisions. The Holy Alliance of Russia, Prussia and Austria usurped itself the right to act as a guarantor of the established order. That world collapsed during the First World War although even in the early 21 century many European countries are still hereditary monarchies.


In The Danton Case, Georges Danton says:

You are isolating the Revolution, Robespierre! Your inhuman demands are gradually alienating the most fervent enthusiasts! At your heights one cannot breathe! Take the terror. – I am not concerned with their stupid heads; heads are two a penny; but you are fighting thievery and corruption, and they are natural needs without which the state is dying\ It is as if you forbade people to digest! Do you know what you will destroy with your terror? Commerce and industry. You are bringing us to a bankruptcy the country is going to remember for half a century … bring the Revolution down to the level of human nature. To reduce demands – to the level of what is possible. To reassure financial circles. In a word – to make Revolution accessible.

Przybyszewska manages to present the problem of idealism versus pragmatism in such terms that one begins to sympathise with Robespierre. One may begin to read her play with the firm conviction that Robespierre was a monster and finish reading it with more sypathy to him and his plight. This is a proper tragedy, with both Robespierre and Danton trying to realise their diverging visions of a better world and both perishing in the process of doing so.

Robespierre’s relationship with Danton is also the subject of Georg Buchner’s play Danton’s Death (1835).

Andrzej Wajda adapted Przybyszewska’s play to cinema in 1983, with great success. The film can be seen here:





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Das Volk


 Friedrich Gunkel Die Hermannsschlacht 1862–1864

A spectre is haunting central Europe – the spectre of das Volk. This concept died at the end of the Second World War but was resurrected in 1989 when citizens of East Germany proclaimed their sovereignty as a nation chanting Wir sind das Volk. They later switched to Wir sind ein Volk, to express their desire to be united with their Western brethren. Now Wir sind das Volk is again being chanted by those who oppose Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal policy towards refugees, or Willkommenskultur.

The concept of das Volk is of Romantic provenience. It is peculiar to Germany and central Europe. Curiously enough, it has no proper equivalent neither in the English nor French language. France, Great Britain and the United States were established as modern states during the Enlightenment. Montesquieu and Locke are their patron-saints. Germany was still divided at that time into kingdoms, principalities, duchies, bishoprics, and free cities. As a nation without a unified state, Germany was an anachronism. The Enlightenment was rather weak in Germany and failed to provide an impulse strong enough to initiate national coalescence. Fichte and Herder provided it with a political culture that was alternative to a rational political arrangement. German national consciousness was built on irrationalism of the volkisch community rather than a society that embodied common sense and reason. It was die Gemeinschaft rather than der Gesellschaft, die Kultur rather than die Zivilisation, blood ties rather than common interest, and organic growth rather than progress through the political process.

US historian Koppel Pinson writes in Modern Germany : Its history and Civilisation that the Volk-based state was

… a living organism, a macroanthropos, a living individuality which was not merely a sum of individuals bound together by a rational contract but organically related by blood, by descent, by tradition and by history.

While the Englishmen were engaged in industry and commerce, Germans busied themselves with speculative philosophy and poetry as das Land der Dichter und Denker.

The adjective German had to be added to almost every noun. Heinrich Heine mocks this attitude in Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen in Caput XI:

Das ist der Teutoburger Wald,

Den Tacitus beschrieben,

Das ist der klassische Morast,

Wo Varus steckengeblieben.

Hier schlug ihn der Cheruskerfürst,

Der Hermann, der edle Recke;

Die deutsche Nationalität,

Die siegte in diesem Drecke.

Wenn Hermann nicht die Schlacht gewann,

Mit seinen blonden Horden,

So gäb es deutsche Freiheit nicht mehr,

Wir wären römisch geworden!

( ….)

Gottlob! Der Hermann gewann die Schlacht,

Die Römer wurden vertrieben,

Varus mit seinen Legionen erlag,

Und wir sind Deutsche geblieben!

Wir blieben deutsch, wir sprechen deutsch,

Wie wir es gesprochen haben;

Der Esel heißt Esel, nicht asinus,

Die Schwaben blieben Schwaben.

No wonder Heine was a bete noire for National Socialists.



 Jan Matejko Rejtan, or the Fall of Poland, 1866

At the end of the eighteenth century, another central European country Poland had a chance to develop as an enlightened constitutional monarchy.  These aspirations were quickly quashed by its neighbours – Prussia, Austria and Russia. An attempt to reform its anachronistic structure failed because Poland was a colossus with feet of clay – too large as a country to be ruled as a cohesive whole and too weak as a state to resist external pressure. It was also handicapped by the egoism of its ruling class, szlachta, whose motto was: anarchy is the guarantee of Poland’s existence.

It seemed for a short period of time during the early 1790s that Poland would join the family of nations built on Lockean principles but the modernising project alarmed Russia. Armed intervention followed and the Polish Commonwealth was partitioned by its neighbours.  The country disappeared from the map of Europe and Poles had no other choice but to accept that they are, too, das Volk (narod). They were ein Volk while being subjects of foreign kings and emperors. Polish national consciousness is Romantic par excellence.


The Troelfth Cake, first partition of Poland on the 26th September 1772, engraved by Noel Le Mire

Volkisch nationalism was not necessarily a bad idea. It allowed smaller nations to survive even when they had no states. The role of language was crucial in national survival. However, when modern nationalism emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century, nations built on the concept of das Volk degenerated into communities engaged in the Darwinian struggle of one nation against another. Central Europe became a battleground of competing nationalisms of Germans against Poles, Czechs against Germans, Poles against Jews, Lithuanians and Ukrainians against Poles, Slovaks and Romanians against Hungarians, and Poles against Russians. These conflicts were often expressed in racial terms as national characteristics ossified into supposedly biological traits. Individuals became willing prisoners of their respective ethnic groups. This process reached the climax when National Socialists decided that the German Volk was a “race” superior to all other “races”. As das Herrenvolk, Germans usurped the right to decide who could live as a slave and who had to die as der Untermensch. They understood the concept of das Volk in purely biological terms.

The Second World War was such a shock to Europe that, when the war ended, the Western part of the continent entered a path of mutual understanding, renunciation of violence, co-operation and progress through compromise. Germany started from die Stunde Null. Germans no longer perceived themselves as an ethnic community but rather as members of a society and citizens whose loyalty was primarily to the constitution.

Paradoxically, the fact that the eastern part of Germany was under Russian control allowed the western part of the country to free itself quicker from chauvinistic nationalism than would otherwise be possible. Konrad Adenauer was a Catholic, the provisionary capital of Bonn had a Catholic majority and Rheinland, where Bonn is situated, has had strong historical ties with France. The beginning of West Germany was effectively a Catholic takeover of Germany and, arguably, it was easier for Catholics (katholicos – universal) to abandon the notion of being members of the ethnic community and to begin reconciliation with the French.

Germany opted for constitutional patriotism (Verfassungspatriotismus) rather than solidarity based on ethnicity. This type of patriotism could not develop in the DDR because the communist system hindered the process of evolution in the relationship between citizens and the state. When Germans in Leipzig chanted Wir sind das Volk in 1989, a fundamental change occurred in the post-war history of Germany. Das Volk reappeared on the political scene in central Europe. Germans in the West perceived themselves as der Nation while Germans in the East saw themselves as members of das Volk. Even 25 years after the reunification many Germans still see themselves as Ossies and Wessies.

Recent developments in Germany have deepened this division. Germans in Leipzig and Dresden are again chanting Wir sind das Volk when they want to express their opposition to the arrival of refugees or illegal immigrants, with the usage of these terms depending on one’s political perspective. The phrase is used as a political weapon and chanted by members of the radical right when they want to frighten the refugees. Germany is deeply divided and there is no consensus as to what it means to be German.

Similar processes occurred in other countries in central Europe. Poland, with 38 million inhabitants, is particularly important. In late 2015, a fundamental shift occurred on the Polish political scene when the populist-nationalist Law and Justice party gained the majority in Parliament. The new government promptly initiated a program of moulding Poland into a second Hungary. Aggressive political discourse, vindictiveness, populism, illiberalism and electoral bribery reign now in Poland. Chauvinism is being encouraged by the ruling party and also by the Catholic Church. Poland is apparently for Poles only. If the appellation of national socialists were not debased by National Socialists, the Law and Justice party could have been called just that.

Poles are becoming das Volk, too, although a sizeable part of the society is deeply concerned about the path chosen by the ruling party. Liberal Poles were alarmed by the words of Kornel Morawiecki, interim speaker of Parliament, who pontificated to MPs that “the good of the nation is above the law. If the law conflicts with that good, then we ought not to treat it as something that we can’t break or change.” This is quite a shift for someone who was one of the leaders of the Solidarity movement under the communist rule. Obviously, Morawiecki was not aware of the sinister connotation of his words. The concept of the will of the people being above the law was one of the pillars of fascism. Morawiecki received standing ovation from people who should have known better.

Poland and Germany have entered unchartered waters. Right-wind radicalism could lead to violence on the continental scale.

Paradoxically, the volkisch disease is now spreading to societies in which das Volk was an alien concept. The French and the English have rediscovered respectively their essential Frenchness and Englishness. Terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists triggered the re-examination of laicite in France and multiculturalism in Great Britain.

Georg Buchner writes in Dantons Tod:

Erster Bürger: Was ist das Gesetz?

Robespierre: Der Wille des Volks.

Erster Bürger: Wir sind das Volk, und wir wollen, daß kein Gesetz sei; ergo ist dieser Wille das Gesetz, ergo im Namen des Gesetzes gibt’s kein Gesetz mehr, ergo totgeschlagen!






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