Thursday, March 30, 2017

AOA INTERVIEW -- Peter Rieth: How the Souls of Eastern Nations may save the Unity of Europe

by David Pence

[AOA  found Peter Rieth's writings at the Imaginative Conservative blog where he has an extensive set of essays on the nations of eastern Europe. We submitted these questions to him.] 

Can you begin with a biographical short story version —birthplace and year, religion, nationality, education and languages. 

Peter S Rieth: My family history combines American and European traditions. I am an alumnus of Hillsdale College, where I majored in political science. I am a Catholic. I have recently started to write a blog called Afterthoughts on Literature. I was brought up and completed my studies in the United States and I now live in Europe. I am fluent in Polish and English, with my French a work in progress.

At Anthropology of Accord we take a Christopher Dawson approach to history and the life of nations as an unfolding of Divine Providence. We were taken by several of your articles at Imaginative Conservative and another at American Greatness. You seem to have a feel for nations and religion that I don’t see in most conservative Catholics writing on public matters. So, we want you in this interview to help us think about the nations and religion in Europe. I am going to ask you more pointed questions, but how about an opening statement? 

Peter S Rieth: Thank you. It is a pleasure to be able to discuss these matters. I have not read Christopher Dawson. I have only read of him. The notion of the life of nations as the unfolding of Divine Providence is not foreign to me. The best exploration of this theme that I have read is a speech delivered at the invitation of St. John Paul II in 1974. The speech was given by one of the most formidable Catholic thinkers in post-war Europe, Major Henryk Krzeczkowski. I highly recommend it. The principle theme of the text is the romantic poetry of Zygmunt Krasiński and the exploration of the tragic consequences for Europe of the establishment of states that took no notice of nations.

Yes in that piece which you translated at Imaginative Conservative,  he says nations are called by God to play some role in Revelation. He seemed to say the practical way a man works out his duty in carrying out Divine Providence is by his role within his nation. He said nations are "notes in the chord of humanity" and without the living members of nations, humanity would be something dead. I went back and read that again and remember that was one of your writings (actually translations) that made us want to interview you.

We thought the Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo at the Synod on the Family and the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban in general have been eloquent defenders of a sanctified view of sexual roles and the spiritual nature of the nation. How do you see Hungary? Are they dismissed by Europeans more easily than the Poles?  

Peter S Rieth: Hungarians, like Poles, are Europeans. Therefore it is not a question of what Europeans think of them. At best it is a question of what western Europeans think. The West does not understand Eastern Europe, but as the recent EU Council elections demonstrated, they would rather keep the Eastern Europeans close than alienate them further.
Prime Minister Orban is more intelligent than his Polish counterparts and harder to dismiss. The present Polish government lacks any deeper grasp of European affairs. Reading Viktor Orban's speeches, some of which have been made available in English at The Imaginative Conservative, one spies a good thinker at work.
He has gone from an iconoclast in the eyes of western Europe to a man to be reckoned with. His views, once considered fringe, are now visible in official statements from EU leaders. This is because his rhetoric tends to be thoughtful. He argues Hungary's case as Europe's case. Mr. Orban understands the limits of politics and is careful how he expends his political capital.
Hungary's political virtues are more durable than Poland's romantic flights of world-historical fancy. Poland can achieve radical, transformational change in European affairs - the fall of communism comes to mind - but she lacks prudent statesmen capable of the daily bread of political life. Hungary is both a firm Western ally in NATO and the EU as well as the only EU nation state besides Germany to have correctly forged a partnership with Russia.
Hungarian political virtue is not new. One spies it in their history dating back to Austro-Hungary. The Magyar is often in a situation similar to the Pole but is capable of political realism.
Turkish leader Erdogan (L) met with Mr. Orban in Budapest (2013)

And what of the Poles? I see they dedicated the country to Christ the King. I also see they are not following the JPII path of reconciling with the Slavic East. They certainly have reasons to hate the Russians. Anne Applebaum is read by a lot of American conservatives. She is married to a Polish intellectual turned government officer. She has turned all her good work on the Soviet crimes to the less noble work of demonizing post Soviet Russia. I am going to ask you three questions about  Poland. First: What of their relation to Russia; and can you explain the 2010 airplane crash in Smolensk, Russia, which wiped out so much of the Polish government going to commemorate that other slaughter of Polish leaders in the Katyn Forest? That crash was so devastating and sickening -- does it still resonate? 

Peter S Rieth: The state of Polish- Russian relations is terrible and its improvement has been one of the primary aims of my political writing in recent years. Regarding Smolensk, I have written an analysis of the causes of the Smolensk catastrophe for the Polish branch of the Russian Sputnik News service. The title of my piece is 'The Ambivalence of Executive Power as the Cause of the Smolensk Catastrophe.'
As to Mrs. Applebaum: I have not read her books on communism, but from listening to her and reading her articles, I have formed the opinion that she has a very shallow understanding of communism and Eastern Europe. I find both her political opinions and credibility as a historian of eastern Europe dubious.
I am of the opinion that anyone with a serious interest in communist Poland or the Cold War in general ought to read Major Henryk Krzeczkowski. As the Major's last surviving named heir, I have tried in vain to find an American publisher for his excellent essays.
I take some satisfaction in knowing that insofar as Major Krzeczkowski is virtually unknown in America, he had the honor of serving as then General Dwight D Eisenhower's translator in Warsaw, a fact later acknowledged by President Eisenhower in a very courteous letter to the Major, who likewise translated Eisenhower's Crusade in Europe into Polish.It was my privilege to convey a copy of that letter to the Eisenhower Presidential Library.

When Americans read about Ukraine and Poland we bring little historical sensibility to their inter meshed history. Can you point us with a few broad strokes about what not to forget? Is there a Slavic undercurrent in all these discussions that we never think about across the ocean? 

Peter S Rieth: The best essay on this subject was written by Major Henryk Krzeczkowski and translated by myself for The Imaginative Conservative. The title of the essay is 'Ukrainians and Polish Statehood.' It traces the causes of the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and the subsequent genocide committed by the Ukranian UPA against Polish civilians. The essay is a rare gem of detailed historiography covering the period from 1918 to 1943. [Mr Rieth also wrote several unique essays on the Russia-EU-Ukraine crisis.]

We often write that European nations must find their Christian souls or they will seek ethnic/racial myths to sustain them. Poland became all the more ethnic after WWII. Can you describe the great migration and re-settlements that defined the territorial limits and ethnic composition of Poland and Germany after WWII? Do you distinguish between an ethno-nationalism and a religious civic nation?  
Peter S Rieth: The re-settlements and postwar borders are subjects I wrote about during the anniversary of the battle of Lenino in an article titled 'The Slave Army that Liberated Europe.'
I do not believe there is such a thing as ethnicity except in a very vague sense. Certainly republicans from Plato to Montesquieu have argued for the desirability of homogenous political units. Homogeneity as a racial category is rather ridiculous. Cultural, political and linguistic homogeneity, attachment to place and history - these are more natural human categories. Tribes are not nations.
Nationalism properly understood cannot fall into tribalism. Christian personalism is important in this regard. The entire idea of European civilization rests on the proposition that nations are not synonymous with tribes, and that Christian national cultures opposed to ethnic nationalism are made for the human person and the organelles of humanity: nations. It is a distinction that has proven very difficult to practice. It may be impossible where there is no piety.

Pope Benedict was very much a modern German. He thought of himself as speaking that language but not a nation man in any sense. Is there a German guilt complex that is being unfairly imposed on other nations as Germans search for a new communal identity?

Peter S Rieth: German guilt is unquestionable. Germany must return to its Eastern roots. Germany dreamed of a thousand year Reich, now it must go East and commit itself to one thousand years of penance and tears for its crimes. Germany should embrace Belarus especially, which suffered horrific loss of life at German hands. Germany must become an Eastern nation again and it must follow Benedict XVI and become a Humble Servant in the Vineyard of the Lord. The Vineyard of the Lord is in Poland, Belarus, the Ukraine and Russia.
German policy must make a pilgrimage of eternal friendship to the Slavic lands. German economy and German might must integrate with Slavic culture with the same systematic determination as it once liquidated it. This is the German destiny. Germany must erase the scar of the second world war from Europe. These are my imponderabilia.

If a great Christian German leader stepped on the world stage would he be Lutheran or Catholic? 

Peter S Rieth: Christianity is at a stage in its historical evolution where such distinctions are no longer essential. They are not essential because Western Christianity is in the throws of the same crisis, whether in the Catholic or Lutheran church.
Nietzsche describes the genesis of this crisis very well in his Genealogy of Morals. Max Scheler's Resentiment and Morality is a worthy commentary to Nietzsche's work, particularly in its focus on agape. Scheler's religious thought goes to the heart of the crisis of faith because Scheler understood what Nietzsche had discovered.
Nietzsche and Scheler are examples of the direction one hopes German religious thinking will take, whether Lutheran or Catholic.

Angela Merkel’s father was a minister who moved EAST to have a church in East Germany. I don’t think he did that out of a Pentecostal like spirit to the bring Christ to the atheists.  I don’t know. Who was he? Who is she?  

Peter S Rieth: Mrs. Merkel, whose biography I do not know, seems to exemplify the German fear of oratory that has come to characterize the nation after the catastrophe of the second world war.
German rhetoric today is banal and uncharismatic. This makes German rhetoric safe, but uninspiring. Can it be otherwise? Germans must find a voice and this voice must speak to all of Europe and particularly all of the Slavic peoples.

Chancellor Merkel with her parents

Germany has always had a special relationship with the Turks. Ataturk’s nationalist project in defiance of Versailles was a great inspiration to Hitler. You have written very perceptively that the real issue in immigration is the nature of citizenship. (By the way, so has Los Angeles Archbishop Gomez in his booklet on immigration reform). Can the immigrant Turk become a German citizen?

Peter S Rieth: I do not know the content of German immigration and naturalization laws. The article I recently wrote on citizenship indicated an essential difference between American and European concepts of what it means to be a citizen.
My point in writing about immigration was not to suggest the best legal forms of immigration policy, but only to remind everyone that citizens have a right to make immigration policy and governments a duty to enforce it. Whether this policy is more or less liberal is a prudential judgment that can and should change as circumstances change.
There is another very important factor which will forever frustrate any attempts to understand immigration law in Europe: unlike the United States of America, Europe experienced two devastating world wars and the intermittent period of Soviet Communism between those wars. Between 1914 and 1946, several million people were dislocated, murdered or otherwise removed either by force or necessity from their historical habitat.
Nations now exist within nations in Europe because of the war, and questions of citizenship are far more complex – they require an intimate familiarity with history to unravel. The problem is magnified in Western Europe by colonialism. Much as Western Europeans are right to defend their borders, it was they who violated the realms of their once colonial subjects first. This is why there is a moral case to be made for Western responsibility for post-colonial migrants (which I underline is quite different from support for illegal unchecked migration) but this case cannot apply to Eastern Europe.
In general, Europe struggles today to define itself – as does Germany. Recent ideas about admitting Turkey into the European Union are indicative of this struggle. To my mind, it is far more important to create a European Union with Russia and the Slavic East. The question is whether this Eurasian Union can be born from a marriage of the existing Union to the Slavic east and then China, or whether the European Union must first collapse?
At this juncture, there is a great intellectual and political struggle afoot to define Europe, to define the European Union. Insofar as the British can resign from this political struggle due to their geopolitical localization – Germany cannot. Poland cannot. France cannot. Yes – they can decide to dismantle the European Union, but in the immediate aftermath they will be compelled to answer the same questions which plague the EU: what now? What forms of association should bind us?

What are the right questions to ask about Germany?

Peter S Rieth: When will Germany rise to its historic duty and turn its sights East? When will it begin its one thousand year penance? When will it become a Humble Servant in the Vineyard of the Lord? I do not mean to ignore the great progress already made since the famous letter from the Polish Bishops. Rather, I believe German-Slavic relations to be a very literal work in progress.

Whenever Europe is ready to come apart, one solution always seems to arise: "Bomb the Serbs." America’s first baby-boomer President and his female Secretary of State Madeleine Albright thought they were preventing a Munich to a Slavic Hitler but in reality they were replaying a century old tune of a multinational western super state  against  Serbian nationalism. What can you say of Serbia and that first post-Cold War NATO exercise? 

Peter S Rieth: The event should be seen in the wider context of Russian President Putin's opinion that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a great geopolitical catastrophe.
The war in a crumbling Yugoslavia, like the current war in Ukraine and the tensions between NATO and Russia along the Inflanty and Ukraine, are all indicative of the extent to which the European architecture agreed at Potsdam and Yalta was rooted in history, not ideology.
The ideological struggle between democracy and communism has come to an end. Yet the historical tensions between the various nations endure and are more pronounced now than during the existence of the Warsaw Pact. These historical tensions must be overcome if a Europe of nations is to survive.
With the unification of Germany, the restoration of the Yalta order is impossible and remains undesirable to the European public at large. Europe is again at a crossroads, much like in 1945 and then 1989. We shall see what is decided.

Secretary Albright called Putin "smart but truly evil"

The Italian nation was born by seizing Rome and dissolving the first Vatican Council in 1870. Roman pontiffs developed an antipathy to the nation state and fraternities of men gathered together in our civic loyalties even if we bowed to God. Do you think, compared to our rich teaching on marriage and family, there is a deficit in contemporary Catholic teaching on the public life of nations?  Have you read Russell Hittinger on the "scissors approach" to the polity in modern Catholic social teaching? 

Peter S Rieth: I have not read Mr. Hittinger and cannot say that there is a deficit in Catholic teaching on nations. Only that there is a deficit of Catholic thought in America and the West.
I observe with some despair that American Catholics at times do not accept Pope Francis's invitation to enter into dialogue with Catholic teaching. American Jesuits like Robert Taft understand these things much better, so there is some hope so long as Jesuits remain the vanguard of the Church.
Many Western Catholics seem not to understand that what was once known as the Latin rite and is now the Roman rite is not the Catholic rite as such. It is, as Pope Benedict XVI would say, an example of the acclimitization of Catholic teaching to the particular culture, in this case Western.
The Catholic church is not and never has been merely Roman. St. Peter made his Church in Syria before Rome, as the Acts clearly record. The word "Christian" was first spoken at Antioch. The patriarchs there and the rites used in the Syrian Catholic churches predate the Latin and Roman rites and are fully respected by the Roman pontiff.
The Roman Catholic church is in full or partial communion with several other Catholic churches. The Coptic Catholics predate Rome. The Greco-Catholics are another example. Westerners got a glimpse of the internationalism of the Catholic church during St. John Paul II's funeral. Western Catholics were a bit perplexed by the sight of so many clerics who looked odd in Western eyes. We tend to forget that seven popes, including St. Peter, were Syrian. The Jesuit Joseph A Jungmann's work on the origins of the Roman rite is an authoritative text with regards to the roots of Catholic liturgy.
I do not think we can say that Roman pontiffs developed an antipathy for nations. If anything, some nations developed an antipathy for Roman pontiffs. There is ample evidence for how organic to Catholic faith nations have always been.
A simple glance at the apparitions of Mary should suffice to demonstrate this. Not only her titles differ, so does her visage.She appears to each nation as one of them, as distinctly national. Yet it is always Mary. That is essentially the definition of Catholicism.

Our position at AOA has been that the civilization we belong to is Christianity and Russia is one powerful expression of the Christian culture. We consider the West -- like modernity -- to be an intellectual abstraction divorced from religion, nature and the nations. We are not trying to defend the West which is constricting in it decadence. We will defend Global Christianity through that biblical form of brotherly love - the nations.  Aren’t you more sympathetic with the Russian Orthodox nation recovering from its atheist nightmare than the EU trying to impose its globalist project of the administrative superstate in service of the autonomous individual? 

Peter S Rieth: Certainly I believe Solzhenitzyn was right; communism and the war have made the Slavic heart too pure, too realistic to ever decay under political correctness.
However, I refuse to surrender the European Union to Western nihilism. Some in the European Union have an unsettling habit of describing anyone who does not conform to their ideology as "un-European." I refuse to embrace this label and likewise refuse to find my place in the Hamlet-like dualism of Euro-enthusiasm versus Euro-skepticism.
I do not support Orthodox Russia instead of the globalist European Union. I support that part of the European heritage which is Orthodox Russian and I do so as a European Catholic.

Thank you for our discussion and the work you are doing.  What is it that you think you are doing? How you would describe your intellectual project?    

Peter S Rieth: When young Henryk Krzeczkowski lost his family during World War II, his sister passed him a note in the last moments before they were separated for ever. On the note it said: "No matter what happens, remain human." I hope that I am contributing to the effort to remain human.

{Ed note: This article by Rieth published  a few months after our interview is a much better answer: The Life of Europe will come from turning to the East}  

Addendum Oct 2017: The Paris Statement: A Europe We Can Believe In.

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