On Visions of Empire

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Four days from now is the Ides of March, which brings to mind the most famous death on that day, Julius Caesar’s — and that gets me thinking about all the little Caesars, Kaisers, and Czars that came after him. Krishan Kumar’s Visions of Empire (Princeton, 2017) readably tells the story of Rome and five other empires: Ottoman, Habsburg, Russian/Soviet, British, and French. His description of Russia’s attitude toward “little brother” Ukraine is relevant to Czar Putin’s ambitions, which are making obsolete the title of Richard Overy’s Blood and Ruins: The Last Imperial War, 1931-1945 (Viking, 2022).

Putin’s imperial war is in the mold of previous ones, which increasingly involved the killing and degradation of civilians. Many of the 990 gripping pages of Blood and Ruins are not for the squeamish. British historian Overy goes into the frequency of wartime rape that leaders of almost every army anticipated, accepted, and even endorsed as a means of showing the powerlessness of losers and the dominance of winners. Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg exhorted, “Break with force the racial arrogance of Germanic women. Take them as the legitimate spoils of war.” Russian officer Lev Kopelev tried to prevent rape by soldiers and ended up sentenced to ten years in a labor camp for his crime of “bourgeois humanism” and “pity for the enemy.”

Many a book describes World War II as seen from an office in the newly-constructed Pentagon, but Overy gets down and dirty as he reports not only physical death but psychological destruction. Every nation had to deal with mental illness, sometimes among those who had been surrounded by corpses. U.S. officials tried to anticipate problems by rejecting about two million draftees on psychiatric grounds, but sanity didn’t last long under extreme pressure: The U.S. discharged half a million soldiers for psychiatric reasons, and an estimated “98 percent of all the infantrymen who survived the Normandy campaign were at some point psychiatric casualties.”

Overy explains how empires fought the war with imperial manpower: “Much of Britain’s war, particularly for the defense of the empire, was fought by non-Britons, a fact still too readily forgotten in British narratives of the conflict.” India contributed 2.7 million fighters, and England’s African colonies supplied more than 600,000 volunteers and conscripts. The Japanese army included 200,000 Koreans. Womanpower became increasingly important as the war dragged on. Soviet women’s units included a Bomber Aviation Regiment whose crews flew 24,000 missions. The Central Women’s School of Sniper Training graduated 1,885 snipers who saw front-line duty and killed numerous German soldiers.

Overy also shows how a “sense of cultural superiority” led empire builders to think they were doing the conquered a favor. That became particularly virulent in a book young Adolf Hitler studied, Friedrich Ratzel’s Political Geography, which drew on evolutionary theory. Nigerian scholar Olufemi Oluniyi’s Darwin Comes to Africa (DI Press, 2023) shows the impact of purportedly scientific racism, and also shows how some Europeans resisted it. For example, Governor William MacGregor told the Royal African Society in London that Nigerian chiefs “might serve as a model of politeness to any people in Europe.”

Worth noting: Your Designed Body (DI Press, 2022) is a guide to God’s creativity in making each of us. Authors Steve Laufmann and Howard Glicksman show that gradual evolution could not have brought about thousands of interdependent engineering solutions. Kelly Kapic’s You’re Only Human (Brazos, 2022) explains well how our limitations “reflect God’s design and why that’s good news.” Stephen Parrish’s Atheism? A Critical Analysis (Wipf & Stock, 2019) debunks the idea that atheistic materialism should be the default position on interpreting reality: Parrish points out that naturalism is not neutral. Lance Morrow’s The Noise of Typewriters (Encounter, 2023) is an elegantly-written memoir about the everyday excitement of journalism.

I heard Tim Keller’s preaching for three years while living in New York City, and listen to his podcast sermons three times a week now, so I’m familiar with Keller basics — but I still learned a lot from Collin Hansen’s Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation (Zondervan, 2023). Hansen shows how Keller, learning from Westminster president Edmund Clowney, developed his explanations of how we are both more loved and more sinful than we imagine.

Marvin Olasky

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Marvin Olasky is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. He taught at The University of Texas at Austin from 1983 to 2008 and edited WORLD magazine from 1992 through 2021. He is the author of 28 books including Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and The Tragedy of American Compassion.