Lessons from the Fall of Rome


In this article I discuss the key historical factors contributing to the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and what lessons we can learn from this pivotal historical event.


The fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century is one of the pivotal events of world history. For over seven centuries the Romans had dominated the Mediterranean, spreading Graeco-Roman civilization throughout much of Western and Southern Europe, North Africa, and the Near East. Much has been written in the succeeding centuries attempting to account for the collapse of such a powerful and long-lived empire. In this essay I want to consider this question from the perspective of what lessons might be pertinent from this period in informing our responses to political and social problems in the present. While I believe the past is a valuable source of wisdom for the present, care must be taken in what lessons we learn, and in particular it is critical we avoid the temptation to simply read current problems directly onto the past. Unfortunately many commentators have failed to exercise such caution, resulting in many alleged ‘lessons’ from the fall of Rome that relate more to the concerns and anxieties of the author than the social, political, and economic forces operating in the fifth century. My goal is therefore not to find simple one-to-one correspondences between social, economic, and political processes in the fifth century and similar processes in the twenty-first century. Rather, my aim is to identify some of the key problems that led to the fall of the western empire, and see whether any of these might prove useful for understanding problems we face in the present. I shall begin with a brief historical overview of the key events in the fall of the Western Roman Empire, followed by an analysis of some of the critical factors I believe account for these processes, and then conclude with a discussion of what we can learn from this analysis that is of potential relevance to the present day.

Historical Background

Before the beginning of the Empire, the Roman state was administered by the Senate, which was an elite group of primarily landowning aristocrats, many of whom also served as generals and public officials. During the first century BC, a series of civil wars took place between powerful Roman generals seeking to consolidate their power. These civil wars culminated in the victory of Augustus over Mark Antony in 31 BC, following which Augustus progressively consolidated his extensive powers over the Roman state, becoming the first Roman Emperor in a constitutional structure called the Principate. The next two and a half centuries were the golden age of the Roman Empire, a period in which the empire reached its maximum geographic extent, trade and the arts flourished, and despite regular frontier wars and two brief civil wars, overall the empire enjoyed an unparalleled period of peace and prosperity.

This golden age came to an end in the AD 230s, giving way to a period of near continual civil war and repeated foreign invasion that is now called the Crisis of the Third Century. During this period, most emperors were no longer drawn from the old Roman senatorial aristocracy, but instead were military generals, often provincials born to commoner parents who rose through the ranks of the army. This disastrous period saw the empire almost collapse, with unity and peace eventually being restored was by a series of energetic emperors in the 270s and early 280s. Owing to the many constitutional and administrative reforms he enacted, the beginning of the reign of Diocletian in 284 is generally seen as the beginning of a new phase of the Roman Empire called the Dominate. These reforms included increasing the size of the state bureaucracy, instituting price controls and other strict economic regulations, increasing the size of the army, separation of military and civilian functions in the provinces, and most famously, his division of the empire into Western and Eastern halves, each with its own emperor. Another critical transformation of the late Roman period was the rise of Christianity, which came to prominence following the conversation of Constantine in 312, and culminated in the Edict of Thessalonica in 380, in which Christianity was made the official state religion. The reforms made by Diocletian and consolidated under Constantine helped to reinvigorate the empire, and led to a further century of relative peace and prosperity for most of the fourth century, at least in comparison to the disastrous third century.

The beginning of the end for the Western Empire came with a series of civil wars in the 380s and 390s between rival claimants to the throne. In addition to weakening the army, these wars also saw the rise of a series of Romanised but barbarian-born generals, who from the 390s to the end of the empire in the west were usually the power behind the throne, usurping real authority from a series of weak emperors, many of whom ascended to the throne as children. In the context of these military and political developments, the Western Empire faced a major catastrophe beginning in the winter of 405/406, when Vandals and other Germanic tribes crossed over the frozen Rhine and began to plunder Gaul (modern day France and Belgium), while at the same time the Goths invaded Italy from the east. With the Western Roman army unable to defend its frontiers, these barbarian groups were eventually placated by granting them land to settle in Spain and Gaul, nominally under Roman suzerainty but in practise largely independent. In the midst of this crisis, the Romans withdrew their legions from Britain, effectively abandoning the region. A further major blow came in 429, when the Vandals crossed into North Africa, attacking Roman settlements and pillaging the countryside. Gradually the Vandals expanded their territory, culminating in the 439 capture of the wealthy port city of Carthage. This was to prove disastrous for the faltering Western Roman Empire, which relied heavily on grain exports and tax revenue from its prosperous North African provinces.

The situation in the west worsened further when in the early 450s, a central Asian nomadic people called the Huns, under the leadership of their king Attila, invaded the empire and devastated large regions throughout Gaul and northern Italy. Although the Huns were eventually defeated, the Western Empire was by then reliant almost entirely on allied barbarian tribes, who after the defeat of the Huns resumed fighting against the Romans. By the 460s, little was left of the Western Empire besides Italy and some isolated residual lands in Gaul and Spain. The Western Emperors of this period were mostly puppets of barbarian generals with no real power of their own, and little influence or legitimacy outside of Italy. In 476, the incumbent Western child emperor Romulus Augustus was deposed by the barbarian General Odoacer, who instead of appointing a new puppet allowed the institution to lapse, and styled himself as the king of Italy. While this was not considered to be particularly important at the time, and Roman political institutions continued for about another century in Italy and for another millennium in the form of the Byzantine Empire in the east, this event is conventionally regarded as marking the end of the Western Roman Empire.

Analysis of Causes

Having presented the core historical narrative, I will now examine some of the fundamental reasons that explain the rapid decline and eventual collapse of the Western Roman Empire over the course of the fifth century. In the most straightforward sense, Roman control over territories outside of Italy itself was predominantly lost as a result of granting lands to invading barbarian groups, which subsequently established their own independent nations and began conquering further territories for themselves. Previously barbarian peoples had been allowed into the empire, but until the late fourth century this had always meant dispersal and integration into Roman society, not gaining control over territories while retaining their own distinct political structure and independent military forces. Why did the Roman authorities agree to such an obviously problematic arrangement? Again, the direct reason is fairly straightforward: they did so because the Roman armies were unable to prevent the barbarian tribes from entering the Empire, or expel them after entry, thus the best the Romans could do was to attempt to exercise some minimal control over the invading tribes by granting specific lands, and then utilising them as military allies when fighting against other barbarians. This leads to the question as to why the Western Roman army of the fifth century was unable to defend its frontiers against barbarian invasions, as it had successfully managed to do for centuries beforehand.

The answer to this question is not so straightforward. Entire books have been written on these issues, and so here I can only briefly summarise some of the major factors that I believe were most important. Unlike the barbarian tribes they faced, the Romans possessed a professional standing army, with standardised, centrally-issued equipment, and soldiers who were formally trained, paid a salary, and who served for a specified period of time. The two main requirements to sustain such an army were a sufficient source of tax revenues to pay for everything, and enough able-bodied recruits to fill the ranks. Ensuring that enough tax revenues and recruits were extracted from the provinces to sustain an army large enough to defend its frontiers was effectively the single most important role of the Roman imperial government. What is clear is that in the fifth century in the Western Empire, the institutions underpinning this system progressively broke down. Tax revenues and recruitment proved insufficient, the army diminished in size and proficiency, and as such the Romans had to rely more and more on external barbarian soldiers to fight for them.

What contributed to the declining effectiveness of Roman institutions? One crucial factor appears to be the decline in prosperity of the Western Roman Empire in the third and fourth centuries, when compared to the previous two centuries. Although evidence is limited, it appears that the upheavals of the third century, combined with rampant inflation and resulting disruption of the coinage system that occurred around the same time, significantly reduced commerce and trade, especially in the western part of the Empire. There was some revival during the fourth century, but not to the peak levels of the second century. Furthermore, major plagues in the second and third centuries significantly reduced the population of the empire, while some scholars also theorise that climactic changes reduced agricultural yields, both of which had the effect of reducing the tax base of the Roman economy. Furthermore, Diocletian’s reforms increased the size of both the bureaucracy and the military, which therefore required larger tax revenues to support. Overall the Roman economy became much more regulated, with the Edict on Maximum Prices of 301 attempting (unsuccessfully) to regulate prices and wages throughout the entire empire, and other legislation introduced attempted to force sons to follow the occupations of their fathers, effectively making a wide range of professions hereditary. The purpose of such regulations was to stabalise and regularise the Roman economy so that collection of tax revenues was made easier and more predictable. In the long term, however, such reforms likely contributed to the decline of commerce and reduced the vibrancy and efficiency of the economy.

All these changes notwithstanding, at the beginning of the fifth century the Western Roman Empire was still much larger and more prosperous than any of the barbarian tribes that would ultimately be the cause of its downfall. A crucial factor hampering the Empire from fully mobilising its available resources was the opposition of the wealthy Italian senatorial families, who by this time owned massive estates concentrated in Italy, Sicily, and the Mediterranean regions of Gaul and Spain. The senatorial aristocracy had always been powerful, with the process of consolidation of land ownership in the hands of fewer and fewer wealthy families dating back to the late Republic period. However this process seems to have accelerated in the third and fourth century, due to a combination of the decline in commerce which had previously supported regional cities, small landowners being forced to seek protection of larger landowners due to warfare, and taxation and economic restrictions forcing small independent farmers to sell out to larger estate owners. Large landholders were often able to gain exemptions from various kinds of taxes, and also had sufficient political power to restrict military recruitment from their estates, since the loss of able-bodied young men reduced the profitability of these estates. The problem of military recruitment in particular seems to have worsened over the course of the fourth century, with the minimum height of recruits being reduced in 367, and increasingly draconian punishments introduced for deserters and draft dodgers. Inability to raise and equip the required manpower seems therefore to be in large part due to the unwillingness of the Roman aristocracy to contribute their fair share of taxes and recruits.

Although it is easy enough to understand why landowners would attempt to avoid taxation and other restrictions on the profitability of their estates, it is also hard to imagine why the great estate holders did not do more to help oppose the barbarian invasions. After all, it is hardly profitable to have one’s estate confiscated, pillaged, or burned by invaders or raiding barbarian tribes, as occurred frequently during the fifth century. Unfortunately the evidence from this period is insufficient to provide any definitive resolutions to this puzzle, but one important factor appears to have been the loss of control of the Senatorial class over the army and imperial government during the Crisis of the Third Century. As noted previously, wealthy aristocrats from Italy were displaced from their traditional roles as generals and provincial governors, replaced by professional soldiers and educated administrators of common birth. While this contributed to an increase in professionalism of the roman military and bureaucracy, it also meant that the wealthy aristocrats who still exercised significant authority at a local level (particularly in the Western Empire) were increasingly ostracised from the imperial administration. Unlike during the Principate when the imperial government broadly served the interests of the Senatorial class, during the Dominate their interests increasingly diverged. By the late fifth century large landowners in Italy seem to have found it preferable to negotiate with the current barbarian invaders, rather than to cooperate with the rapidly disintegrating imperial administration. In short, it appears that the divergence of interests between the roman aristocracy and the imperial government during the fourth and fifth centuries resulted in the aristocrats ceasing to support the government when it needed them most.

Lessons for the Present

Having considered some of the major factors which may account for the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, I now want to address what we might learn from this that is of relevance to the contemporary world. Drawing lessons from history is always difficult, since one is tempted to project current problems onto very different past social and economic situations. Nevertheless, I believe there are some general lessons to be learned. First, I believe that we can learn from the results of Diocletian’s economic and administrative reforms. While these reforms were intended to strengthen the Empire and probably did contribute to the revival of the fortunes of the Empire during the fourth century, in the long term these policies likely weakened the Empire’s tax base and contributed to the accumulation of land by large estate holders. The imperial government came progressively to be seen by many of its citizens, especially in the west, as more of a burden than a benefit. The Roman state’s single most important function was to provide physical security and protection from barbarian raids. When it failed to fulfil this function, many peoples in the west saw little value in continuing to support the government. Today the functions of governments are far more extensive than anything imaginable in the ancient world, but nevertheless it is still essential for a government to consider the long-term implications of its laws and institutions, and ensure that on balance it is providing value to its citizens. Naturally this is more easily said than done, and predicting the long-term effects of policy changes is difficult. Nevertheless the experience of Diocletian’s reforms illustrates how policies designed to resolve problems in the short-term can have potentially disastrous long-term consequences.

Second, the experience of the fall of the Western Roman Empire illustrates how important it is for educated elites to remain engaged in a nation’s political process. As discussed early, over the course of the fourth century the old senatorial aristocracy became increasingly distanced from the army and the imperial bureaucracy, and in large part ceased to be engaged in or supportive of measures to defend and reinvigorate the state. Many senators still made impassioned speeches about the importance of the empire and of defending traditional Roman values, but concrete actions to preserve the Empire, such as paying of taxes, rallying of troops from their estates to defend the frontiers, or supporting reform efforts, were in general noticeably lacking. Although today the circumstances are different, I believe we can learn from these events the importance of those with the education and the means to make a difference actually taking concrete actions and continuing to engage in the political process, instead of moaning about how bad things are whilst spending most of one’s time engaged in private pursuits. In the case of the Senatorial aristocracy this mostly meant attending to their vast estates; in our day and age we have different preoccupations and distractions, but nevertheless the lesson of the importance of concrete political engagement is still highly pertinent.

Third, I believe we can also learn from the Roman experience a lesson about the importance of taking a broader view beyond the latest crisis of the moment, and spending time and effort thinking about the long-running trends that are occurring and what might happen in the future if present trends continue. This is so important because nearly everything that happened in the Western Empire in the fifth century, including civil war, weak emperors, corruption, barbarian invasion, economic upheaval, had all happened before. Although many people were concerned about the way things were going, there was seldom a widespread recognition that such things foreshadowed the end of the Empire. The process of decline was for the most part very gradual; each year the army became slightly less effective, administration became somewhat less competent, cities fell into marginally worse repair, such that for most people nothing felt particularly out of the ordinary. Events that would have been shocking to Romans two or three generations previously came to be considered as normal. Observers certainly noticed that things weren’t going well for the Western Empire, but the decay was so slow that few could see the extent of the underlying problems, nor was it clear when the Empire reached a point of no return from which it could never recover. Thus, at some point in the late fifth century there came a time when there was no Western Roman Empire anymore. Few mourned its passing at the time, since the process had been so gradual that few even realised what had happened. Applying this lesson to the present, we should be wary of falling into a similar trap of failing to perceive the longer term trends as a result of being too focused in the minutia of day to day crises, and failing to consider cumulative changes over long periods of time that is easy to become accustomed to. It is hard to effectively deal with problems that we aren’t even aware of, and failure to take a longer-term perspective can lead to an inability to recognise vital trends which, in retrospect, seem extremely obvious.

A fourth and final point, related to the previous two points, is the importance of avoiding short-term thinking when tackling social and economic problems. When costs must be borne in the present and benefits are uncertain and in the future, there is a natural temptation to avoid paying those costs and hoping things will work out, or someone else will solve the problem. This appears to have been part of the attitude of the Roman aristocratic class, as multiple times even when Italy was threatened by barbarian invasion, they failed to exert sufficient effort and make the personal sacrifices that would have been necessary to save the Empire. At the time Senators may have reasoned that such extreme measures were not necessary, or that barbarian rule was really little different from Imperial rule, so long as the Senatorial class was allowed to retain control over their estates and maintain their dominance over local affairs. For a time this was the case, since the first barbarian conquerors of Italy did allow the Senatorial classes continued influence over local politics and continued enjoyment of the revenues of their estates. In the longer-term, however, the Senatorial class only survived the Empire by about a century, with many of their estates devastated and local political arrangements massively disrupted by wars which ravaged the Italian peninsula during the sixth century. The Roman Senate, once the institutional basis of power for the entire Mediterranean, ceased to exist in the early seventh century. Whilst many things become obvious in hindsight, nevertheless it seems plausible that had the Roman aristocracy of the fifth century been more forward thinking, they could have realised that it would be difficult to sustain their privileged position without a Roman army to defend them and a Roman state to justify their existence. Short term thinking, it seems, is an age old problem that we would do well to learn from.


The fall of the Western Roman Empire was a seminal event in world history, and understanding what caused a once large and powerful state to fall into ruins has interested scholars ever since. In this essay I discusses some of the critical factors that I believe contributed to the decline and fall of the Empire in the west, including declining effectiveness of the Roman army, economic downturn due to increased warfare and short-sighted economic policies, accumulation of wealth and power by large landowners, and a growing schism between the Senatorial class and the imperial government. I then considered what lessons might be applicable from these events that are relevant to the present. I identified four key lessons: the importance of considering the long-term effects of economic and political reforms, the essential role played by continued engagement of educated elites in shaping political outcomes for the public good, the necessity of paying attention to longer term trends rather than getting lost in the minutia, and the critical importance of avoiding short-termism when considering situations when we have to pay present costs to accrue benefits in the future.


BROWN, P. 1993. The World of Late Antiquity, London, Thames and Hudson.

CORNELL, T. & MATTHEWS, J. 1992. Atlas of the Roman world. New York; Oxford: Facts on File.

GOLDSWORTHY, A. K. 2003. The complete Roman army.

LIEBESCHUETZ, W. 1993. The end of the Roman army in the western empire. War and Society in the Roman World, 5, 265-276.

RETIEF, F. P. & CILLIERS, L. 2006. Causes of death among the Caesars (27 BC-AD 476). Acta Theologica, 26, 89-106.

TWINE, K. 1992. The City in Decline: Rome in Late Antiquity. Middle States Geographer, 25, 134-38.

WHITBY, M. 2003. Rome at War AD 293-696, Routledge.

Islamic Contributions to Scholarship

School students the world over regularly experience all the pain and pleasures of learning algebra. What few students realise, however, is how much they have to thank medieval Islamic scholars for the development of the ideas they are learning. The word ‘algebra’ derives from the Arabic al-jabr, which means roughly ‘restoration’ or ‘rejoining’. It was developed by ninth century Persian mathematician Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī in his most impressively entitled The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing. Al-Khwārizmī also gave his name to the world ‘algorithm’, referring to the method he developed of solving mathematical problems by systematic application of particular abstract rules – the very rules that students learn to this day in elementary algebra courses.  Students also have medieval Islamic scholars to thank for the numerals they use in calculations (1,2,3, etc), which were originally developed in India and then passed on to the West by Islamic mathematicians. Although modern students might perhaps feel less than grateful for this contribution, anyone who has ever attempted to do arithmetic using Roman numerals (the preferred method in the west before the adoption of Arabic numerals) will understand how much of an advance they represent.

The contributions of Medieval Islamic scholars to human knowledge extend well beyond algebra, encompassing a wide range of fields such as mathematics, philosophy, medicine, and astronomy. The modern scientific discipline of chemistry evolved from medieval alchemy, and the English word ‘alchemy’ derives from the Arabic al-kīmīā. Such a word borrowing is due in large part to the influence of such scholars as Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (‘the Persian Socrates’) and Jabir ibn Hayyan, both of whom purified a wide range of chemical substances, and whose works describe in detail various chemical apparatuses, some of which are still in use to this day. In the field of astronomy, Syrian astronomer and mathematician Al-Battani calculated the length of the solar year to within an accuracy of two minutes, his work later being influential to Tycho Brahe and Nicolaus Copernicus in the development of heliocentrism. The tenth century Basran scientist and philosopher Hasan Ibn al-Haytham was so profoundly influential that he has been called ‘the second Ptolemy’. He wrote numerous influential works on optics, astronomy, and geometry, and was an early proponent of what we would now describe as the ‘scientific method’, including the use of empirical observations and mathematical models to understand natural laws. Ibn Sina, like many contemporary Islamic thinkers, made contributions to many fields, but is perhaps most well known for his monumental medical encyclopaedia The Canon of Medicine, which was used as a medical text throughout the Islamic world and in Europe until as late as the seventeenth century. Islamic scholars also made important advances in the field of geography, such as the notable work of twelfth century geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi. He produced a fascinating work called ‘the Book of Roger’ (after the Norman patron who commissioned the work), which discussed in detail the physical geography and social and political customs of all lands and peoples of the known word, from Western Europe across to East Asia. Al-Idrisi produced a world map which remained one of the most accurate in existence for centuries, until the voyages of discovery of the fifteenth century.

Most of the developments discussed above, and many others besides, took place during a period often referred to as the ‘Islamic Golden Age’, which lasted from roughly the eight through to the thirteenth centuries. Understanding why the Islamic world flourished during this period, and how influential their contributions were to prove to Europe, requires some knowledge of the historical context in which these developments occurred. To appreciate this story, we must journey all the way back to the fifth century AD, in the dying days of the Roman Empire. As the western portion of the empire progressively decayed and collapsed under the combined assault of barbarian attacks and internal unrest, economic and cultural life became increasingly disrupted. The gradual collapse of central administration meant that the famed Roman roads, so vital for connecting together disparate regions of the Empire, fell into disrepair. Local townships and petty lords took over the provision of security at a local level, hampering commerce and cultural exchange between regions. With the economic and political decline came a reduction in the degree of urbanisation, falling literacy levels, sharply decreased manuscript production, and an overall reduction in the resources available and interest in the pursuit of science of philosophy.Such a comparable decline, however, did not occur in the eastern regions of the Empire, and it was these relatively wealthy regions, still preserving much of the learning of the ancient world, which came under Islamic rule beginning in the seventh century. The period of relative order, prosperity, and unity that the Islamic world from Persia to Spain experienced in the following centuries helped to foster the bourgeoning of Islamic science, philosophy, and culture. Islamic achievements of this period therefore far outstripped anything taking place in contemporary Europe, which by comparison was economically backward and hopelessly fragmented into numerous feudal principalities.

Beginning around the eleventh century, increased economic and cultural exchanges between Western Europe and the Islamic world (largely taking place through Spain and Sicily), led to a transferal of many texts, ideas, and technologies to the West. Of particular interest to Europeans were the Arabic translations of many classical Greek writers, relatively few of which had been preserved when knowledge of Greek had been lost in the west in the aftermath of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. As more of these texts were translated into Latin (the universal language of scholarship in the west), many of these texts became available to European scholars for the first time in centuries. Particularly important as the so-called ‘rediscovery’ of the works of Aristotle, which although preserved in the East had largely been lost to the West, and the translation of which into Latin resulted in a wide range of philosophical and theological upheavals, notably influencing the work of leading medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas.

Today, many scholars believe that the contributions of medieval Islamic science, philosophy, and mathematics to Western Europe, as well as its important role in preserving ancient Greek texts, helped to foster first the Renaissance and later the rise of modern scientific thinking in early modern Europe. In particular, the rediscovery and reimagining of many works of literature and philosophy of classical Greece and Rome that characterised the period would likely have not been possible had these works not been preserved in the Islamic world. It is unfortunate that today, with the central nexus of scientific and philosophical work now having shifted elsewhere, so few remember the vital contributions of the Islamic world at a time when Western Europe, by comparison, produced very little of scientific or philosophical value.

Reflections on the 70th Anniversary of VE Day: The Price of Victory


In commemoration of the 70th anniversary of VE Day, I discuss the immensity of the victory that was achieved over the Germans, the cost of that victory, and the German perspective and experience in facing utter defeat. I conclude with some thoughts on the future of Europe, and the need for continued vigilance in the face of re-emergent nationalistic movements.

The History

Seventy years ago today, representatives of the German High Command signed the Instrument of Surrender document, by which all German forces were to lay down their arms and surrener unconditionally to the Allies. This day (and on May 9th in Russia owing to time zone differences) has since been commemorated as VE day, celebrating victory in the European Theatre of the Second World War, and the final, complete defeat of Nazi Germany.

The Victory

VE day commemorates one of the greatest military victories in modern history. For some four years during the period 1940-1944, most of continental Europe was under the direct or indirect control of Nazi Germany. This brutal regime was responsible for the murder of millions of Jews, Gypsies, Russians, Poles, and others who fell under its rule, and the enslavement of millions more on its farms and in its war factories. Freedoms were quashed, human rights ignored, and basic human dignity abandoned on an immense scale. Goods, resources, and treasures of all sorts were looted, stolen, seized, and stripped from all over Europe to feed the German war machine, and to maintain the living standards of the German people (particularly the Nazi elite).

The defeat of this monstrously evil regime is a task of which all those who contributed ought to be indescribably proud. Though the Allies were themselves not blameless in their conduct, and the Stalinist regime in Russia was in at least some ways quite as bad as the Nazis against whom they fought, nonetheless it must be said that the defeat of the Nazi regime is an unequivocally good outcome, one worthy of our jubilant celebration.

The Cost

Whist celebrating the achievement, however, we must not lose sight of the immense cost of the victory. The Germans were an exceedingly formidable enemy, not at all like the bumbling, goose-stepping, Hitler-heiling buffoons who cannot aim a rifle, as they are so often depicted in Hollywood films. The German army was, arguably, the most proficient fighting force in the world at the time. The German soldiers were well-trained, tightly disciplined, and led by an extremely competent and professional General Staff. The German military was equipped with some of the finest and most advanced military hardware in the world at the time, including (by the end of the war), the first jet aircraft, assault rifles, and the exceptionally well armed and armoured Tiger tanks. Though there often were not enough of the latest equipment to go around, the fact remains that the German military was an exceptionally competent force: it fielded well-built aircraft manned by skilled pilots, modern tanks commanded by officers well trained to exercise initiative in combat situations, and was comprised of soldiers who, until the very end, fought fiercely and ably for their Fatherland. British historian Max Hastings has said of the German army: “there’s no doubt that man for man, the German army was the greatest fighting force of the second world war”.

The immense difficulty of the task of defeating this formidable force is illustrated by the casualties suffered by the Allies in doing so. Nearly one million soldiers from the western allies, including France, the United States, and Britain and its Empire, died in the fight against the Germans. As staggering as this number is, it is dwarfed by the mammoth losses suffered by the Soviet military, which are estimated at around 11 million killed. In total, around 12.5 million allied soldiers died in the fight against the Germans and their allies in the European theatre, in addition to perhaps 25 or 30 million civilians.

The toll was not only heavy in terms of human lives. The British Empire, United States, and Soviet Union all had to devote over one half of their entire national output for a period of some four years to the war effort, representing a titanic commitment of resources. Years of ground fighting, aerial bombardment, resource shortages, and other wartime-induced hardships and damage left the continent in ruins, with aerial or ground combat taking place in the modern-day nations of: Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, France, Britain, Italy, Albania, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Greece, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Russia, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Austria, and Germany. Many of the great capitals of Europe were badly damaged by bombing or ground combat, including London, Rome, Athens, Belgrade, Budapest, Leningrad, Warsaw, Vienna, and Berlin – Paris was luckily mostly spared. The immense cost at which the victory over the Germans came is something that must never be forgotten.

The German Perspective

It is important and valuable, I think, to pause in our recollections for a moment to consider, as is seldom done in Allied nations, the German perspective on VE Day. Hitler had promised the German people a new beginning. He promised an end to the humiliation suffered following the First World War, a restoration of their lost territories, and the establishment of a strong, proud, respected German Reich which would be a home for all the Germans throughout Europe. They were promised a Volksgemeinschaft, a national community established to promote the welfare of all German people, operating in a spirit of brotherhood and mutual commitment. They were promised the establishment of a New Order in Europe, a continent unified under the hegemony of Germany, which at last would finally achieve the pre-eminence and the expansion room for German settlers that it deserved. It was the dawning of a new golden age for Germany, the beginning of the Thousand Year Reich.

The sacrifice made by the German people in fulfilment of this dream was immense. About 5.3 million German soldiers were killed in the war, and when several million civilian deaths from famine, disease, war crimes, and allied bombing are added, the total death toll amounted to roughly 10% of the pre-war population of Greater Germany. Notwithstanding the many promises made to them, ultimately this sacrifice was all in vain. By the conclusion of hostilities, the German state had been completely destroyed, its leadership killed or captured, its government ceased to exist and the entirety of its territory occupied by its enemies. Almost all major German cities lay in ruins, devastated by years of allied bombing which left tens of millions homeless. In addition, millions of German women were raped by Soviet soldiers as they fought their way through Germany’s Eastern provinces, while some 30 million Germans from the East were forced to leave their homes, the terriroties in which they had lived to be transferred to other countries.

Perhaps never before in modern history has a large, modern state been so overwhelmingly and completely defeated, subdued, and destroyed. There is even a word to describe this victory by total destruction of the enemy state: debellation. The unconditional nature of the German surrender left them with no negotiating power at all. German independence was not properly restored until 1955, and even then the allies retained certain special rights over Germany until the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany was signed in 1991.

By the end of the war, the spirit of the German people had been completely crushed. Their dreams and everything they had worked for twelve years to build, destroyed. They now faced a legacy of shame for the monstrous crimes they committed, a shame which continues to haunt the German people to this day.

The Legacy

Today, seventy years later, Europe is a very different place. Its cities have been rebuilt, Governments re-established, and freedoms restored, and in many places even established for the first time. The German dream of a united Europe is at long last being achieved, though in a very different form. For all its faults, the European Union represents a fundamental shift in European politics and society, a putting aside of the old national rivalries which have been the cause of so much suffering and death. Now the nations of Europe are coming together in a spirit of cooperation and friendship to work together for the common good.

We must also recognise the continued threats to peace and freedom that still lurk within many European nations. In times of uncertainty and difficulty, such as recently occurred following the global financial crises, we tend to observe a rise in nationalistic xenophobia, a turning inwards and away from the ideals of European community and brotherhood. The recent rise in anti-Semitic attacks and other incidents in France, Germany, and elsewhere is a particularly disturbing manifestation of this.

As we celebrate this anniversary of VE Day, therefore, we rejoice at the victory that was achieved, mourn at the immense cost at which this victory came, and reflect on how we can work towards a better, fairer, kinder future, one in which the horror and barbarity experienced by Europe during five long years of war will not be repeated.

Lest We Forget.

Anzac Day: Misconceptions and the Real Meaning of Commemoration


I begin with a brief outline of the history of the Gallipoli Campaign, and then address three apparently common beliefs about Anzac Day which I believe are misconceptions: that Australia was a (or the) major participant at Gallipoli, that Anzac Day commemorates those who died to defend our country, and that Anzac Day is a glorification of war or crude nationalism. I conclude with some thoughts on reflections on what I consider to be the real purpose of Anzac Day, and the proper mode in which it ought to be observed.

Some History

In late October 1914, following a long period of rising tensions between the two nations, the Ottoman navy conducted a number of raids against Russian shipping in the Black Sea. Russia responded on 1st November by declaring war on the Ottomans, with Britain and France following suit a few days later.

Gallipoli is a peninsula located at the northern edge of the Dardanelles, a narrow body of water separating Europe from Asia, both sides of which were controlled by the Ottoman Empire. The British, spearheaded by then First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, desired to send shipping through these straights (in particular to gain access to Russia via the Black Sea), and to do so would require neutralising the Ottoman fortifications on the peninsula. Naval attacks conducted in March 1915 were unsuccessful in achieving this aim, so plans for a ground invasion were hastily drawn up.

After some delays, British, French, and Commonwealth troops were landed on the northern side of the peninsula on 25 April 1915. Though they failed to capture the peninsula, the Ottomans were likewise unable to drive them back into the sea. Thereafter followed months of gruelling and inconclusive fighting in which neither side was able to make significant headway. As a result of these failures and also because of growing need for Allied troops on other fronts, it was decided to withdraw the expeditionary force, an operation which was completed in January 1916 and thereby brought the campaign to a conclusion.

Causalities from the campaign were split roughly evenly between the Allies and the Ottomans, around 50,000 men killed apiece. Overall the campaign was a clear operational failure for the allies, as they failed to achieve their objective of capturing the peninsula and securing safe passage through the Dardanelles. Strategically the outcome of the campaign is less clear-cut, with several historians arguing that the invasion drained the Ottomans of men and matériel they could replace much less easily than could the allies, and thereby diverting their attention away from possible aggressive actions elsewhere. In sum, the Gallipoli campaign was an important secondary campaign of the war, though far from decisive for its outcome.

Some Misconceptions

‘Australia was a major participant in the Gallipoli campaign’

Australia was certainly an important participant in the campaign, but it was certainly not the largest. Of the roughly 188,000 casualties suffered by both sides, only 28,000, or about 15%, were Australians; by comparison, the British suffered 120,000 casualties. Now of course, 28,000 causalities is a horrifically large number, particularly for a country as small as Australia. But it is, I think, important to bear in mind that the Gallipoli expedition was not predominantly an Australian affair. It was planned by the British, executed using British naval vessels, and manned mostly by British troops. Australians, as well as New Zealanders and Indians, were essentially just along for the ride, as Britain needed all the manpower it could get from its vast empire.

‘Anzac Day commemorates those who fought to defend our country’

With the possible exception of certain actions fought against the Japanese in World War Two (and even then I think its dubious how much of a genuine threat Japan ever posed to Australia), no Australian serviceman have ever fought in a war to defend Australia. Australians have fought in British colonial wars (Sudan, Boer War, Boxer Rebellion, and the Malayan Emergency), in two Cold War conflicts (Korean and Vietnam Wars), in several peacekeeping operations (Somalia, East Timor), and in the Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Not a single one of these wars was in any way in defence of Australia. These wars (whether justified or not) were all fought in the furtherance of foreign political interests, and not because Australia was under any genuine threat. In the case of World War Two, Australia was never under any threat whatever from Germany, and the actions against Japan I have already mentioned.

The First World War, the conflict of most concern to us here, had no direct bearing on Australian security. None of the Central Powers (least of all Turkey) had any interest in Australia or ability to exert military force over it even if they did. The only sense in which Australian involvement in World War One in any way related to the defence of Australia was via the fact that Australia’s security rested on the strength of the British Empire, which was (although again fairly indirectly) threatened by the war. In the case of the Gallipoli landings, there is really no relation to Australian security at all. If anything, the invasion was about protecting British interests in Egypt, and in preventing the Ottomans from doing more damage to the Russians or from aiding the Germans in fighting France and Britain in Europe. So in a way Australians were dying to help defend Russia and France, albeit indirectly, and likely not very effectively.

‘Anzac day is a glorification of war and vulgar nationalism’

Anzac Day was first celebrated by veterans as a way to solemnly remember their fallen comrades and commemorate their experiences. At first the general public was not even allowed to join in the marches. As far as I have been able to gather, Anzac day waxed and waned somewhat in importance over the years, and was not a particularly prominent event even as late as the 1970s. Its current popularity with many young people and concomitant association with a certain brand of frenzied Australian nationalism seems to date to the 1980s and 1990s.

Thus, if people feel like Anzac day glorifies war or a encourages a particularly distasteful form of nationalism, that is in large part an affectation, the way the day has come to be seen and experienced by a certain group of people. Rather than saying Anzac day ‘is’ those things, I think it is more accurate to say that Anzac day has been (or can be to varying degrees in varying circumstances) coopted for such uses, and that when this happens the real spirit and meaning of the day is lost.

I find it particularly odd when people make the claim that the solemn marches, minutes of silence, sounding of the last post, reading of commemorative stories and poems, etc, in any way constitutes a ‘celebration’ or ‘glorification’ of war or militarism. To commemorate something is not to celebrate it. If people are incapable of understanding the difference, this is a fault of their ignorance, not of Anzac Day itself. Misplaced attitudes or expectations regarding what Anzac Day is and what it is for can and should be corrected by communication and proper social modelling of how to conduct a respectful commemoration without turning it into crass celebration. I think this would be a far more productive response than demonising the day altogether, as some have tended to do.

Some Thoughts

I think it is good and proper to have a national day to commemorate those who fought and died in war. I do not see any need for this to be linked in any particular way to nationalism or to contemporary military or political issues. It is not necessary that those we commemorate fought for a righteous cause, or even for any cause at all. In this respect I think we should be reflective and honest about Australia’s military history, which I think is mixed at best. Australians like to think that Australian soldiers fought and died to protect freedom and liberty, and arguably Australia has done this some of the time (e.g. World War Two, the Korean War, the Gulf War).

In many other cases, including that of Gallipoli, the rightness of the cause for which Australian soldiers fought is much less clear. Indeed, in the case of the Gallipoli campaign I would go further and say that there was no clear cause being fought for. Moreover, whatever the cause, the Gallipoli campaign was a failure – the invasion was not successful and the soldiers were eventually evacuated. It was a pathetic waste of human life, which achieved little or nothing to advance our interests, all in support of a war that had no real purpose to begin with. Is this something we should celebrate? Glorify? Sanitise? Absolutely not. Is it something that we should remember? Commemorate? Reflect upon? Absolutely.

Anzac Day, correctly understood and commemorated appropriately, is exceptionally important. It is a day to remember those who fought and died, for Australia and for other countries, for causes good and bad. They were, most of them, ordinary men and women who for various reasons found themselves in horrific circumstances. They fought, they suffered, and they died. They were just people, like you and me. They don’t have to have done died for a noble cause in order for their lives and experiences to be worthy of our commemoration.

Anzac Day is also a day when we should reflect on the past. We should celebrate those occasions when brave men and women stood up against injustice or tyranny, and at times gave their lives so that we may live in peace and security. Romanticised as it may sound, I believe this has happened on occasion in Australian military history, and is certainly worthy of remembering and celebrating. We should also reflectively consider the times when war was fought because of greed, cruelty, intolerance, or even for no clear reason at all. We must try to remember and learn from these experiences, so that we can grow as individuals, as a nation, and as a species, and learn to live with each other in greater peace and harmony. Forgetting the mistakes of the past and not taking time to reflect upon them will not help us to achieve this vital goal. This, in my view, is one of the most important purposes of Anzac Day.

I’ll close with a few words from one of my favourite commemorative songs:

There is no enemy
There is no victory
Only boys who lost their lives in the sand
Young men were sacrificed
Their names are carved in stone and kept alive
and forever we will honour the memory of them
And they knew they would die
Such waste of life

Have a commemorative, thoughtful, reflective Anzac Day.

Lest We Forget

70 Years after Auschwitz: Reflections on the Holocaust


Seventy years ago, on the 27th of January 1945, elements of the 332nd Rifle Division of the Red Army liberated the concentration and extermination camps at Auschwitz. This date is now commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, in remembrance of the six million Jews murdered by Nazi Germany and its allies during the Second World War.

The word ‘holocaust’ derives from the Greek holókauston, and refers to a religious sacrifice in which the offering is completely burnt. The word was used for centuries to refer to great massacres, and in the decades following the World War II it become the term preferred by English-speaking scholars to refer to the genocide of the Jewish people by Nazi Germany. The Hebrew term for the event is Shoah, which means ‘catastrophe’, a term I think is probably more fitting, however in this article I shall adhere to convention and use the word ‘holocaust’ to refer specifically to the genocide of the Jewish peoples of Europe during World War II.

In this short piece I cannot possibly do justice to an event of such monumental importance and scope, and so I will not try do to so. Instead, I shall restrict myself to sharing some thoughts and observations regarding specific aspects of the Holocaust that I find especially important and interesting.


The Holocaust, in my view, was a singular and distinct historical event. There have of course been many other genocides and atrocities both before and since, but the Holocaust possessed certain features which I think make it unique. In particular, the Holocaust was distinct from other genocides in the organised, mechanised, systematic manner in which the killings were carried out. In the words of German historian Eberhard Jäckel:

“Never before had a state with the authority of its responsible leader decided and announced that a specific human group, including its aged, its women and its children and infants, would be killed as quickly as possible, and then carried through this resolution using every possible means of state power.”

The Holocaust was such an immense logistical and organisational undertaking that essentially every branch of the German state apparatus participated to one degree or other: records of Jewish identity were supplied by the Interior Ministry and local churches, the Post Office delivered deportation and other administrative orders, the Finance Ministry was responsible for confiscating Jewish property and the Reichsbank for laundering stolen money and valuables, universities expelled Jewish students and academics, government-operated railways transported millions of prisoners to concentration and extermination camps, while German companies tested drugs on concentration camp prisoners, bid for contracts to build the crematoria, and provided technologies such as punch card machines and Zyklon-B used in the extermination process. The Holocaust was truly an undertaking which spanned the breadth and depth of the Reich’s state apparatus – it was a national endeavour.

In other religiously-based genocides throughout history (including Jewish pogroms of centuries past), members of the target group were usually able to escape death by conversion (or pretending to convert), but this was not the case during the Holocaust. Anyone with at least three Jewish grandparents who had not converted before 1871 was to be executed, irrespective of their professed religious beliefs. This policy reflected Nazi ideologies concerning the importance of maintaining the purity of the Aryan race, and that the contaminating element of Jewish identity was not primarily social or ideological but biological.

Another unique feature of the Holocaust was the use of extermination camps. As far as I have been able to determine, this is the only time in history where facilities have been established specifically for the mass execution of an entire class of people (as distinct from killing selected persons for religious, entertainment, or judicial purposes). The use of gas chambers for mass murder was definitely a German innovation, one which came after extensive experimentation with different methods of most easily and efficiently killing large groups of people. Other methods that were trialled included shooting, lethal injections, and gas vans, before eventually the Germans settled on the method of extermination by gas chambers, which was found to be capable of dealing with large number of victims quickly, and also placed less of a psychological strain on the perpetrating SS soldiers then did methods like mass shootings.

The Germans rapidly developed a precise and orderly system for conducting mass executions. Jews were rounded up at the point of origin, loaded onto goods trains, and transported to the extermination camps, under the guise that they were to be ‘resettled’. Once at the camps, those seemed fit to work were used for slave labour, while the rest were sent directly to the gas chambers for immediate execution. Prisoners were told to undress for showering and delousing, their clothes and other valuables systematically collected and catalogued for later resale. Even gold teeth were extracted from the corpses to be melted down. After entering the gas chambers the prisoners were locked in, and the poison gas (Zyklon-B was used at Auschwitz) was introduced into the chamber. After about twenty minutes the last of the thumping and screaming – easily audible outside the chamber – died out, and the chamber was opened and the corpses removed and cremated by members of the Sonderkommando, Jewish prisoners forced to work for the Germans before they too were eventually killed. About three million Jews were killed in eight extermination camps in circumstances much like this, including about one million at Auschwitz itself.

The organised, bureaucratic way in which the Holocaust was carried out was quite remarkable and historically unprecedented. During the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, Adolf Eichmann presented a list specifying the number of Jews in every country in Europe, including neutral countries not under Germany’s control. This list is taken as clear evidence that the Nazis planned to eventually extend the Holocaust throughout all of Europe. In this document, Estonia was already listed as Judenfrei (free of Jews), thanks to the actions of the Einsatzgrupppen, who moved in swiftly after the German occupation began. The Einsatzgruppen were special death squads deployed in Eastern Europe, and were responsible for killing perhaps one million Jews. They kept detailed records of their massacres which they provided their superiors to keep track of the progress that was being made towards annihilating all Jews. One such document, called the Jäger Report, survived the war, and contains daily tallies of the number of Jews killed in Lithuania during late 1941. With deadly precision, it shows an end tally of 136,421 Jews murdered, including 46,403 men, 55,556 women, and 34,464 children.

The Germans also kept detailed records concerning the number of arrivals at extermination camps. The Höfle Telegram records 23,611 arrivals at four camps in the two weeks before 21 December 1942. Likewise, the Korherr Report of January 1943 contains detailed information concerning the decline in Jewish populations throughout Europe over the first decade of Nazi rule. Many other such documents existed, but were destroyed in the dying days of the war in an attempt to hide the scale of the atrocities from the occupying Allies forces. Nevertheless, the documentation which does survive clearly portrays the organised, systematic way in which the German state apparatus was directed towards murderous ends, to a degree not found in other genocides.

Another key feature of the Holocaust was its immense scale. Numbers alone cannot do justice to the magnitude of the tragedy, but nonetheless they are useful for providing some context. In 1938, there were roughly 9.5 million Jews in Europe (including Russia). Of those, roughly 8 million lived in Germany, allies of Germany, or regions later occupied by Germany, with most of the remaining 1.5 million living in the UK or parts of Russia that remained unoccupied. The total death toll of the Holocaust, according to Lucy Dawidowicz’s figures (which I consider to be the most complete and accurate), is close to 6 million exactly. This means that the Nazis killed about 75% of all Jews under their control, and about 66% of all the Jews in Europe. Undoubtedly had the war continued for longer, the percentages would have been higher still. It is also important to note that today there are around 14 million Jews in the world (mostly living in either Israel or the USA), compared to perhaps 16 million in 1938, meaning that the world Jewish population has still not recovered from the Holocaust. Owing both to the Holocaust and post-war emigration to the US and Israel, the Jewish population of Europe has fallen from its pre-war high to about 1.5 million today. Many Jewish communities, particularly in Eastern Europe, were completely eradicated, never to be revived. This level of destruction has seldom been achieved in such a short space of time.


There is, I think, a fairly widespread belief that the Holocaust was perpetrated by a small minority of fanatical Nazis, with most ordinary Germans either being kept ignorant of what was happening, or being forcibly compelled by the Nazi hierarchy to carry out murderous actions. The idea, I think, is that evil deeds are done by evil people, and that therefore the lesson of the Holocaust is to keep evil people out of positions of power and influence. I believe this view is essentially false, and that the truth of the matter is much more complex, and also much more frightening.

It is difficult to know how much the average German knew about the Holocaust during the years in which it was being carried out. Certainly many of the details, including the existence of gas chambers, was kept secret. However, various sources of evidence point towards the conclusion that knowledge of what was being done to the Jews, in broad terms, was quite widespread. Given the scale of the undertaking and the involvement of so many state agencies and other groups, as well as the sheer number of camps that existed throughout Germany, makes it very hard to see how knowledge of what was occurring could have been kept secret. In his famous war diary entitled Mein Widerstand, a minor official named Friedrich Kellner recorded how he heard of a massacre of Polish Jews from a soldier on vacation from the front, illustrating the sort of means by which ordinary Germans could obtain such information. On this subject, historian Peter Longerich has said that “general information concerning the mass murder of Jews was widespread in the German population.” And to the degree that they were aware of what was occurring, the reaction of most Germans was, on the whole, that of indifference, or as Ian Kershaw put it so eloquently: “the road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference”. Other scholars have argued that ‘passive complicity’ may be a more appropriate description, highlighting the widespread participation with various aspects of the Holocaust by German civil, military, and corporate bodies, and also the widespread underpinning of moderate anti-Semitism.

In his classic work The 12-Year Reich, historian Richard Grungerber writes:

“In the entire history of the Third Reich no single body – civic, academic or even religious – ever made use of such opportunities as it had for publicly protesting against the regime’s inhumanity. The feasibility of protests of this nature was demonstrated… by Cardinal Galen’s denunciation of euthanasia from the pulpit, which evoked a sufficiently strong resonance to halt the regime’s ‘mercy killing’ programme. But euthanasia victims were flesh of German flesh, and those effected ranged through all classes of society. Some Jews too had self sacrificing and devoted friends… but ‘the righteous among Gentiles’ were individuals, representative only of themselves; as far as the great majority were concerned, Jewish suffering affected beings in another galaxy rather than inhabitants of the same planet as themselves.”

Grungerber here refers to the German forced euthanasia program Aktion T4, which met with such substantial opposition from within the bureaucracy and the churches that Hitler officially cancelled the program in August 1941 (though killings did continue in much greater secrecy until the end of the war). In contrast, no formal protests or organised opposition of this sort took place with respect to the regime’s treatment of the Jews. The sole exception was the Rosenstrasse protest of March 1943, in which a group of German women publicly protested against the deportation of their Jewish husbands, and succeeded in having them released. If only this sort of opposition had been more sustained and widespread, the death toll of the Holocaust of may have been far lower. Alas, as historian Saul Friedländer writes:

“Not one social group, not one religious community, not one scholarly institution or professional association in Germany and throughout Europe declared its solidarity with the Jews.”

Thousands of personnel in the Germany Army actively participated in massacres of Jews (as well as Poles and Soviet prisoners of war) on the Eastern Front. Most Wehrmacht soldiers were not Nazi party members, but ordinary Germans from all walks of life. Such behaviour was encouraged from the highest levels of the Wehrmacht, as for instance in the infamous Severity Order of October 1941, in which Field Marshal Walther von Reichenau declared:

“The most important objective of this campaign against the Jewish-Bolshevik system is the complete destruction of its sources of power and the extermination of the Asiatic influence in European civilization… In this eastern theatre, the soldier is not only a man fighting in accordance with the rules of the art of war, but also the ruthless standard bearer of a national conception… For this reason the soldier must learn fully to appreciate the necessity for the severe but just retribution that must be meted out to the subhuman species of Jewry.”

As far as I have been able to determine, German soldiers were seldom if ever punished for refusing to execute civilians or other participate in genocide. Indeed, I am not aware of any cases of any significant group of soldiers refusing to engage in genocidal activities, or of voicing significant opposition to them. From what I have read, many such operations were carried out by volunteers, and there was generally no difficulty in finding men willing to participate. Explicit compulsion and threat of punishment were simply not necessary.

Supporting the narrative that heinous crimes are committed by evil people is the belief that we, being good people, would never do such a thing. We look at ourselves, we look at our family and friends, we look at those in our community, and for the most part we do not think of them as truly evil people. As such we imagine that the Nazis and any Germans who supported them must have been unbelievably heinous and immoral, as only such an innate inner badness could explain their actions. Of course, most ordinary Germans in the lead-up to the war would have never thought it possible that something like that Holocaust would happen in their enlightened, developed country, and would undoubtedly have been mortally offended had one advanced the proposition that they would do nothing to stop a mass slaughter of civilians. We like to think we are different. Are we really?

Uncomfortably for our self-perceptions, there is considerable evidence concerning the immense power of peer pressure, social normalisation, and obedience to authority in leading people to act in ways which they would in different circumstances denounce as heinous. In his famous experiment, Milgram found that two-thirds of his subjects were willing to administer apparently lethal electrical shocks to others, merely because they were instructed to do so by an experimenter wearing a white lab coat. The Stanford Prison Experiment, Ash Conformity experiments, and The Third Wave experiment, though not without problems, also offer insights into the psychological processes at work in compelling otherwise good people to do horrific things.

The main defence of many Nazi officials and commanders at the Nuremburg Trials was that they had only been following orders (“Befehl ist Befehl“). Although undoubtedly an (unsuccessful) attempt to save themselves from execution, the use of this defence also seems to me to reflect the genuine motivation behind many of these actions – namely that they had been ordered, and it was the job of the soldier and bureaucrat to follow orders. It is also clear, however, that many went beyond the strict ‘call of duty’ in this sense, as there are many documented cases of local civilians participating in or even pre-empting German massacres of Jews, and also of various lower party officials and local administrations vying with each other in developing their own more ruthless anti-Semitic policies. The initiative for the Holocaust came not only from the hatred of those at the top, but also from the longstanding antipathy and crass opportunism of those at the bottom of the Nazi hierarchy.

Allied Responses

Too often we forget a crucial aspect of the Holocaust, namely the (as I regard it) totally inadequate response by Allied and neutral nations to news concerning Nazi persecution of the Jews. Particularly deplorable, in my view, was the Évian Conference, convened by Roosevelt in 1938 to discuss what was to be done regarding the increasing number of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. It is interesting to note Hitler’s personal reaction to the conference:

“I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”

This statement parallels other plans and policies of the Nazi regime (e.g. the Madagascar Plan to deport the Jews to the island of Madagascar) to expel the Jews from Europe an resettle them wherever they would be accepted. It is clear from these plans and statements that Hitler really did not care less what happened to the Jews – he just wanted them out of the way. As such, it seems clear to me that the prospects for some arrangement being made were potentially quite good, if only the other nations of the world were willing to help. Apparently thinking along similar lines, an American observer at the conference wrote:

“It is heartbreaking to think of the …desperate human beings … waiting in suspense for what happens at Evian. But the question they underline is not simply humanitarian … it is a test of civilization.”

By my reckoning, civilization failed that test. Virtually all nations present, including the British Empire and the United States, refused to agree to any significant increase in the number of refugees they would accept. The Australian delegate T. W. White said “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one”, echoing the casual anti-Semitic sentiment that was prevalent at the time through most of the Western World.

The failure of the rest of the world to aid Jewish refugees is highlighted by the case of the MS St. Louis, an ocean liner filled with over 900 Jewish refugees which was successively denied entry to Cuba, the United States, and Canada, before finally being forced to return to Europe. Eventually the UK agreed to take 288 of the passengers, with the remainder settled in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, an estimated 250 of whom were subsequently killed in the Holocaust.

Another conference was held in Bermuda between the UK and the US in 1943 concerning the question of Jewish refugees in occupied Europe. Once again, there was no change in policy: the US refused to increase its immigration quotas, and the UK refused to rescind its ban on Jewish refugees being allowed to enter British Palestine.

In December 1942, the Polish government-in-exile issued a report to the Allied government entitled “The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland”, in which they outlined evidence concerning the treatment of Jews in occupied Poland. There is much debate concerning exactly how much the allies knew, when they knew it, and what they could reasonably have done – for instance the debate in 1944 about the possibility of bombing the camp or railway yards at Auschwitz (which was decided in the negative). Although the question is a complex one, my impression of the matter is that the Allies took the matter far less seriously than they ought, and put far less than their maximum efforts into helping the Jewish peoples of Europe. Historian David S. Wyman wrote extensively about plausible additional actions the Allies could have taken in his book The Abandonment of the Jews.

None of this is intended to deny the brave actions of many men and women who risked their lives in various ways to shelter Jews and otherwise save them from deportation or execution. Many such persons are remembered by the Israeli state today as being among the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’. Unfortunately, there were far too few such brave individuals. To many Jews at the time, at must have seemed, as it is written, “surely there is not a righteous man upon earth.”


I think most people draw very much the wrong conclusions from the events of the Holocaust. The message of the Holocaust, in my view, is not that it was a crime so heinous that only a group so uniquely evil and depraved as the Nazis could have committed it. We cannot forget that many high-ranking Nazis were, at least on the surface, decent men who loved their families – indeed, many SS officers brought their families to live with them at the concentration camps.

The true message of the Holocaust, I think is how an underlying long-standing antipathy towards a particular identifiable group can, under the right circumstances, be seized upon and radicalised by a sufficiently motivated and well-organised minority group. It shows us how powerful the words and personality of a charismatic leader can be, and how powerful are social pressures to conform, to obey authority, to keep one’s head down and not make a fuss. Had we lived in that time, with the social pressures as they were and without the benefit of hindsight, I believe that most of us would have acted just as most Germans did – we would have done nothing. Indeed, are there not great calamities and injustices occurring around the world right now to which we react in much the same way?

The events of the Holocaust are, of course, grounded in a specific time and place in history. Nevertheless, I also think that these events exemplify certain primordial characteristics of human psychology – the tendency to conform, to obey authority, to care only for our own, to despise those who are different – of which we should always remain aware and wary. More than anything else, I think the Holocaust illustrates the potentially disastrous consequences of apathy, and the need to be constantly vigilant concerning the suffering of others. In the beautiful words of John Donne:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

If we are to prevent atrocities such as the Holocaust from occurring again, I think it is vitally important to be aware of the true history of these events, and not to sanitise them into simplistic narratives about a wicked few duping and coercing an entire nation to do their evil bidding. If we falsely see the Holocaust as an outcome solely of the Nazi’s unusual depravity and moral shortcomings of mid-20th century Germany, we miss the much broader lessons concerning human nature which this event has to show us, and we likewise ignore the possibility that the same human nature could once again, under the right circumstances, give rise to similarly horrific crimes. As Karl Jaspers said of the Holocaust, in words far more eloquent than mine:

“That which has happened is a warning. To forget it is guilt. It must be continually remembered. It was possible for this to happen, and it remains possible for it to happen again – at any minute.”

Reflections on the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Today marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. For almost thirty years it blighted the landscape of Berlin, serving as a stark reminder to millions of East Germans in particular, and hundreds of millions throughout the Communist world in a more general sense, that their lives and destinies were not their own: that ultimately their governments were in charge of their lives. Its fall represented a substantial triumph for the cause of freedom and self-determination peoples, something to be celebrated and commemorated for a long time to come.

The story of the fall of the wall should also remind us just how fragile is any form of power that it based solely or primarily on the exercise of force. At the most fundamental level, the reason that East Germans could not cross into the West was because they would be shot if they attempted to do so – over one hundred people were killed in this way over the years of the wall’s existence.

But on that evening of the 9th of November 1989, Gunter Schabowski’s bungled announcement of a new policy to allow East Germans to visit the West – but only after obtaining a proper exit visa – led to crowds of thousands gathering at border crossings throughout Berlin, demanding to be let through. The border guards were unsure what to do, not having been given any clear instructions on the matter.

At that crucial moment, the power of the state was put to the test. Had the resolve of the Communist leadership held, had they issued unambigious orders to refuse passage to anyone without the proper visa, and for the guards to fire upon any who tried to cross otherwise, the wall would have stood. But their bluff was called, the underlying weakness of the power structure revealed. No one in the leadership was willing to take responsibility for issuing such orders. They lost their nerve. And so eventually the guards bowed to the pressure of the crowds, and opened the border crossings.

Less than one year later, East and West Germany were reunited, the wall was almost completely demolished, and communist rule which had lasted for forty-five years came to an abrupt end – not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Why did the Berlin Wall fall? There were many political, social, and economic factors at work at the time which led events to take the course they did. Nothing happens in a vacuum. But, at least in the most direct and straightforward sense, the wall fell because thousands of ordinary people demanded it, and no one in a position of power was willing to do go to the lengths necessary to oppose them. Is this, perhaps, a lesson that may still be of relevance in fighting against injustices and abusive power in the present? Situations are complex and variable, but nonetheless I still think this is a case worthy of remembering.

A Naturalistic Explanation of the Resurrection Appearances of Jesus


In this piece I argue that the Hallucinations, Biases, and Socialisation Model (henceforth HBS model, which I outline here) provides a superior explanation for the resurrection appearances of Jesus of Nazareth than does the competing Christian explanation (i.e. that Jesus was raised by God). In making this argument, I first present an account of what I mean by an ‘explanation’, and how one explanation can be judged superior to another. I argue that an explanation has greater explanatory power to the degree to which it can explain diverse phenomena (‘explanatory scope’), and to the degree to which it does not need to introduce antecedently unknown entities (‘plausibility’).

I then argue that the HBS model is both more plausible and has wider explanatory scope than the Christian explanation. I argue that it is more plausible since it depends only on the existence of psychological and sociological processes which are known to exist, whereas the Christian explanation must make contentious and uncertain assumptions about the existence and motivations of God. I argue that is has wider scope because it is capable (with minor adjustments) of explaining a wide range of miracle claims across different religions, whereas the Christian account is specific to the Resurrection appearances only. I thus conclude by arguing that, since the HBS model provides a superior explanation for the resurrection appearances without needing to posit the divinity of Jesus, the alleged superior explanatory power of the Christian explanation (as argued by apologists like William Lane Craig or Mike Licona) cannot in fact be appealed to as a significant argument to support the probable truth of Christianity.


What is an Explanation?

I will begin by assuming that our objective is to provide an explanatory account of the resurrection appearances, including other associated details like the empty tomb and the conversion of Paul. The first step, I think, is define what we mean by an ‘explanation’, since different people use this word in different ways. In my view, an ‘explanation’ is more than just a satisfying story, or an account that seems to ‘make sense’. An explanation needs to get at the ‘underlying truth’ of the situation; what we might call the ‘causal structure’ of what is occurring. I know words like ‘truth’ and ‘causal’ are themselves problematic, but I’m trying to gesture at a very tricky concept here by using terms that I hope people have some existing familiarity with.

In light of these considerations, let me provide what I think is a suitable first-order approximate definition which will be sufficient for our purposes here: “an explanation of some phenomena X consists of a set of events, entities, and processes, which taken together provide/entail the causes which gave rise to X”. Put simply, an explanation of X is an answer to the question “what made X be the case?”, or “why X and not something else?”

Quality of Explanations

Explanations are not all or nothing; they come in varying degrees of higher and lower quality. In assessing the relative quality of different explanations, I believe that essentially what we are doing is maximising some abstract quantity, which for the sake of argument I will call the ‘power’ of the explanation. That is, better explanations have greater ‘explanatory power’. Explanatory power is a difficult and abstract concept which eludes simple definitions. Here I propose (again for the sake of conceptual clarity and without pretence of comprehensiveness) to think of explanatory power as being the combination (in a vaguely mathematical manner, analogous to multiplication) of two additional concepts: ‘scope’ and ‘plausibility’. Let me explain each of these in turn.


Explanatory scope refers to the size and extent of the phenomena that a given explanation can explain. Thus, given a particular explanation, the more different things that are in X (the set of things which are explained), the greater is the scope of that explanation. Special Relativity has greater explanatory scope than classical Newtonian Mechanics, as the latter is only applicable when velocities are considerably lower than the speed of light, while the former is applicable with any velocities. Greater explanatory scope is to be preferred, as it means that the explanation yields a greater insight into the underlying causal processes at work; it ‘tells us more’ about what is going on. However, greater explanatory scope does not by itself mean that an explanation is a good one – for instance, conspiracy theories tend to have very large explanatory scope, as they provide causal explanations for (often) a very diverse range of social, political, and economic phenomena. Such explanations, however, generally score poorly on the criteria of plausibility, to which I will now turn.


The plausibility of an explanation refers to its ‘simplicity’ or (more loosely) its ‘elegance’. This is closely related to the idea of Occam’s razor, which some people state as being the principle that ‘simple explanations are to be preferred’ or ‘the simplest explanation is most likely to be correct’, however I think this is a misleading characterisation. As I believe the idea is generally understood and applied in science and elsewhere, the notion of ‘simplicity’ has little or nothing to do with how easy an explanation is to understand, or how long it takes to explain, or even how many entities or processes it needs to appeal to. Rather, the version of the razor which I prefer, and which I think is most accurately descriptive of good inferential practise, is ‘entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity’. That is, given a particular phenomena to be explained, the explanation which requires the fewest assumptions or premises that are new (that is, not known antecedently) is (all else equal) to be preferred as an explanation. Understood in this way, the value of simplicity in an explanation is that with every new assumption we introduce about something existing or some process working in a particular way, we also introduce another place where we might make a mistake or go wrong. The more of these there are in our explanation, the more likely it is that at least one of them is incorrect, and hence the less likely the explanation is to actually be true.

Explanatory Power

Now that I have outlined the notions of ‘scope’ and ‘simplicity’, I will return to articulating the concept of ‘explanatory power’. As I stated earlier, I believe that explanatory power can be profitably understood as combination (loosely speaking, like the mathematical product) of scope and plausibility. That is, an explanation is said to have greater explanatory power to the degree to which it has greater scope, and the degree to which it has greater plausibility. Explanations with greater explanatory scope are to be preferred because they tell us more about the underlying causal processes at work, and more plausible explanations are to be preferred because they are ceteris paribus less likely to introduce a false assumption or premise which would invalidate the explanation.

Many explanations in science, and I also think some in history and even philosophy, have both a wider scope and high plausibility, and so consequently have high explanatory power. Some explanations, like conspiracy theories, have wide scope but immensely low plausibility (as they must posit a very large number of people working behind the scenes, competence to avoid detection, presence of immense resources, motivations to act, and many other such things that we do not antecedently know to exist, and indeed I think often have good reason to believe do not and even cannot exist). Other explanations may lack explanatory power for the opposite reason: although they have high plausibility in the sense of not needing to posit many new entities or processes, they may be so circumscribed and restricted in the class of phenomena which they can explain, that their explanatory scope is very narrow (arguably many historical explanations are of this sort). The sort of explanations which have the least explanatory power of all are those with both narrow scope and low plausibility (I think many paranormal explanations fit into this category, as they often only apply to specific events or a small class of events, and also make reference to ghosts and other such entities which are not antecedently known to exist).

Degrees of Plausibility

Before moving on, there are two final points to make. First, when I talk about ‘positing new entities and processes that are not antecedently known to exist’, this should be interpreted properly be interpreted as also being a matter of degrees. Entities or processes are seldom known for certain to exist, but are antecedently established with varying degrees of probability. Likewise, one entity or process cannot necessarily be assumed to be equal in plausibility to another merely because they are both referred to by a single word. Positing a new type of fundamental particle, or a new Neolithic culture in some part of the world, will in general be much less ‘extravagant’, and hence much more plausible, than positing the existence of ghosts or big foot, even if the latter are capable of providing a causal account of (i.e. an explanation for) the same set of phenomena. Of course, making this determination about the relative degrees of plausibility of different entities or processes is often quite difficult, but in principle I believe this is what we ought to attempt when constructing a plausible explanation.


Second, many people in discussing explanations make reference to the consistency of an explanation; both the consistency of the explanation with the specific events or processes to be explained, and also more generally its consistency with our existing background knowledge about the world. Personally, however, I do not think it is necessary to introduce ‘general consistency with background beliefs’ as a separate criterion in judging explanatory power (or the quality of explanations generally), as I believe the idea of an explanation being consistent with our ‘background knowledge’ about the world is already incorporated into the notion of simplicity, in the form of the number of ‘new entities’ that a proposed explanation must posit. As to the question of consistency of the explanation with the specific phenomena to be explained, I think that if the explanation is inconsistent with the phenomena to be explained, then it is simply not an explanation of those phenomena (though it may be a partial explanation of sum subset of those phenomena). This sort of specific consistency, however, is relatively easy to obtain, simply by introducing additional ad hoc auxiliary hypothesis into an explanation (e.g. in an extreme example, one could simply say the explanation works one way on Mondays and another way on Tuesdays. Obviously this has very low plausibility, but it is nonetheless consistent with the specific phenomena to be explained).

The Resurrection Appearances

The HBS Model

We are now in a position to analyse competing explanatory accounts of the resurrection appearances of Jesus. Given the above considerations, we have established that our goal is to discover or develop an explanation with the maximum amount of explanatory power. Such an explanation allows us to understand the most about why things happened as they did, at the lowest ‘cost’ in terms of introducing new, antecedently unknown entities or processes (and thus multiplying the chances for error to creep in).

I believe that my HBS model (probably with some tweaks and additions, as its only a first draft, and I’ve had much less time to work at it and expertise spent on it than have the apologists on their arguments) possess greater explanatory power as an explanation for the resurrection appearances (and related events) on both accounts: I believe it has wider scope, and also greater plausibility. I will now defend each of these claims in turn.

Scope of the HBS Model

I believe the HBS model has reasonably wide scope because, with relatively small adjustments of details, it can serve as an account for the development and propagation of many different miracle claims and other paranormal beliefs throughout history. The psychological and sociological processes that it refers to are, given their widespread documentation and repeated validation, largely universal (in broad terms, obviously specifics vary), and so can be appealed to in many different cultural and historical circumstances to explain how people’s memories are reshaped over time, and how large groups of people can come to believe very unusual things even in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. As such, since it is able to provide an account of a wide range of phenomena, the HBS model has reasonably wide explanatory scope.

Plausibility of the HBS Model

I also believe the HBS model has reasonably high plausibility, as it does not require the introduction of many new entities or processes. The model is based upon known psychological and sociological phenomena which have been generally quite well documented (though more work remains to be done on many details of course), and thus are antecedently known to exist. The main posit necessary in the model is in extrapolating these processes beyond the specific environments in which they have been originally studied, and applying them in collectively to explain a particular complex event in history (i.e. the resurrection appearances). In extrapolating and applying such phenomena, there is of course a degree of uncertainty. The HBS model assumes that the processes operate in broadly the way they have been observed to in various other contexts, and also assumes that they can interact and play off each other in the way I outlined in the model. I believe that these are reasonable assumptions to make, as the processes I document are sufficiently robust, and have been observed in sufficiently many contexts, that extrapolating them in the manner in which I have done in the HBS model is reasonably plausible, and consistent with other such ‘extrapolation’ practices in science and history.

Explanatory Power of the HBS Model

Thus, taken together, I believe that the HBS model of the resurrection appearances exhibits a fairly high degree of explanatory power. Its antecedently unknown assumptions are relatively few, mostly restricted to extrapolating and applying processes which I believe are already quite well documented. As such, it has fairly high plausibility. Likewise, its explanatory scope is reasonably high, as (with some appropriate modifications of specifics) the broad account can be applied to explain many other miracles and supernatural claims throughout history.

Plausibility of the Christian Explanation

I will now contrast the HBS model, with the Christian explanation of the resurrection appearances – namely that God resurrected Jesus, who then went on to appear to his various followers. First, I believe this account has relatively low plausibility. As far as I can tell, it requires three assumptions or premises which are not antecedently established: 1) that there is a God, 2) that this God desires to intervene in human affairs, and 3) that Jesus was the/a means by which this God desired to intervene in human affairs. I have chosen this tripartite division because I think it facilitates greater conceptual clarity: God could exist but not care to intervene in the world, or he could exist and be interventionist, but not be interested in resurrecting Jesus because in fact he is the Islamic God or the Hindu god (or whatever else). Of course, one could subsume all three assumptions into a single premise, for example simply “Jesus was God”, but I think this is essentially just stating the same three things in a different way. The key point is not how many sentences we write, but how many distinct conditions there are, each are separately controversial: some people believe 1) only, some believe 1) and 2), some all three, and others none.

So how plausible are propositions 1-3? I don’t know. I have argued elsewhere that our best guess for the probability of 1) is something like 10%, however I think even values north of 50% are also defensible (though not, say, 90%). The other two are considerably harder to put numbers on. Regardless, the real point is simply that I believe a Christian should agree that, antecedently to considering the resurrection, all of these three propositions are at best uncertain. They are a long way from firmly established. By contrast, I think most of the psychological and sociological processes utilized by the HBS model are quite firmly established, and the extrapolations made in applying them to the particular case of the resurrection are relatively small. This is, of course, a question of weighing up relative plausibilities, which is not easy to do. But I do think a strong case can be made that the processes and entities which the HBS model must posit in order to explain the resurrection appearances are antecedently known to exist with considerably higher confidence than the entities and processes required by the Christian account. As such, it is my view that the HBS model has greater plausibility than the Christian explanation.

Explanatory Scope of the Christian Explanation

I also think that the HBS model has greater explanatory scope than the Christian explanation. As noted before, the HBS model (with minor adjustments) can explain a diverse range of supernatural and miracle claims from all over the world, as it relies on psychological and sociological processes which (in general terms) are known or reasonably thought to operate in sufficiently similar ways across different times and cultures (there is, of course, a degree of extrapolation here as noted above, but I believe it is reasonably small). In contrast, the Christian explanation is so specific that it can only account for the Resurrection appearances, and perhaps also (with minor adjustments to extend the account to Jesus also appearing at other times and places in history) at least some subset of other Christian miracle claims throughout history. It cannot, however, provide any explanation for the many other miracles reported in Buddhist, Hindu, Mormon, Islamic, Pagan, and many other religious and spiritual traditions. As such the Christian explanation has narrower explanatory scope than the HBS model.

A Caveat

I am not saying here that a Christian worldview cannot provide an explanation for non-Christian miracle claims or paranormal occurrences. Rather, what I am saying is that the Christian account of the resurrection appearances, or any simple extrapolation thereof, does not itself provide such an explanation. Perhaps by introducing further assumptions about God appearing in other ways throughout history, or demons acting to deceive mankind, or even by appealing to some of the very same psychological and sociological mechanisms which the HBS account is based on, a Christian would be able to provide an explanation for these other miracle claims that is consistent with their worldview. But my point is precisely that this would require positing additional entities or processes (demons who can appear to people, or God choosing to reveal himself in additional ways to other peoples, etc) which are not entailed by the original explanation of the resurrection appearances itself.


Summing up, I have argued that the HBS model of the resurrection appearances possess greater explanatory power than does the Christian explanation. As such, I believe that we ought to prefer the HBS model over the Christian explanation, and judge that the former is more likely than the latter to be a correct, ‘true’ account of the causal processes which accounted for these sequences of events. If this is correct, it follows that the inference from the resurrection appearances to the probable divinity of Jesus (and hence the truth of Christianity) is an unsound one. Such an inference cannot validly be drawn, because in fact a more satisfactory causal account of these events can be given which does not entail the divinity of Jesus or the truth of Christianity.

It is very important to emphasise that here I am not in any way making an argument for the falsity of Christianity. Indeed, I believe a perfectly orthodox Christian could agree with my entire argument here. I am saying only that the Christian explanation for certain historical facts concerning the resurrection appearances (and related matters like the empty tomb and conversion of Paul) does not constitute by itself a strong reason to believe in the truth of Christianity, as there exists a superior explanation which does not entail this conclusion (namely, the HBS model). In spite of this, Christianity could nonetheless be true, since the HBS model does not rule out the divinity of Jesus or the reality of the resurrection accounts; it simply renders them unnecessary to explain said phenomena. Indeed, I believe (though I don’t have any firm data on this) that the majority of Christians both in the present and throughout history have not believed on the basis of this sort of historical argument. As such, I certainly don’t think that refuting this argument is a refutation of Christianity. It is merely a refutation of this particular argument in favour of Christianity.

A final point that I wish to make is that this isn’t merely some sort of intellectual game. It’s about finding the truth. If we wish to honestly seek the truth, we cannot decide on our conclusion beforehand and work out what evidence or arguments will get us there. We must examine the evidence and arguments as objectively as we can (with perfect objectively always remaining elusive), and attempt to arrive at the conclusion which is best supported by said facts and arguments. I believe that the conclusion which is best supported by the facts and arguments available, in the light of the analysis I have given, is that the resurrection appearances can be better explained naturalistically rather than supernaturally, and that as such the Christian explanation of the resurrection appearances does not constitute any substantial reason for belief in the truth of Christianity. I might be wrong about this conclusion, and so I invite everyone reading this to honestly and politely critique my arguments to expose errors or gaps in my reasoning. May we all be enriched in this joint search for the truth concerning this most important question.

What Lennox Got Wrong: A Refutation of his Key Arguments


In this piece I offer a critique to some of the major arguments raised by John Lennox in his recent talks at Melbourne, both at the Friday night ‘Cosmic Chemistry’ public lecture, and also the Saturday ‘Reasons for Faith’ conference. Quotes that Lennox uttered over the course of these two events are presented at the beginning of each section in italics and quotation marks. These are taken from my notes made at the events in question. I have divided them up into topics, which I respond to in turn. The topics I address are: Lennox’s denial of evolutionary science, the argument that Christianity is responsible for the scientific revolution of the 17th century, the argument that language and semantic meaning cannot in principle be explained naturalistically, the notion that the very rational intelligibility of the universe must be taken for granted for science to even begin to function, the assertion that Christians were responsible for the abolition of slavery and the declarations of human rights, attacks on Atheism based on the evils done by Hitler and atheistic communist regimes, and the argument that without God there can be no objective grounding for morality. In general terms, I argue that Lennox misrepresents facts about history, fails to engage with philosophical disputes and the views of those thinkers who disagree with him, oversimplifies complex issues, and generally fails each time to present a cogent case for his arguments. (Note: Lennox also mentioned the evolutionary argument against naturalism, which I will not address here but will save for a future piece.)

Denial of Evolution

Lennox made a number of statements that were critical of evolution, or questioning of certain aspects of the current Neo-Darwinian consensus. In my view all of these arguments have been more than adequately refuted many times over by scholars far more learned than me, and such arguments are not taken seriously by biologists. As such, I don’t feel the need to rebut his claims specifically. I’m just going to list some of his most egregious assertions here for reference, as illustration of the profound extent to which of scientific denialism is to be heard even from a prominent mainstream Christian apologist such as Lennox.

  • “Where I have difficulty is in seeing this natural process (mutation and selection) as being creative, in the sense of generating new information. Evolution can explain about the survival of the fittest but not the origin of the fittest”
  • “You can arrange cars in a hierarchy, but that doesn’t mean that they are related…the tree of life has been turned upside down by biologists”
  • “Until you can give a mechanism for the progress of the lower organisms to the higher ones, you’ve just got an empty word (referring to the word ‘evolution’)
  • “Ideas coming out in the recent decades seriously questioning established wisdom…about the gradual accumulation of mutations” (note: I think what he was referring to here is growing evidence for punctuated equilibrium rather than gradualism, but he did not clarify this and made it seem that biologists were questioning evolution itself)
  • “I’m reacting as a non-biologist…but popular accepted wisdom in the blind watchmaker seems to be dying out”

The Christian Origins of Science

“Christian belief in God far from hindering science was actually the engine that drove it”
“Historically we owe modern science to Christianity”

A Dubious Thesis

The argument that Christian beliefs facilitated the scientific revolution in early modern Europe is not a new one. The usual argument goes that Christian belief in the presence of a lawgiver who created a universe governed by regular laws that we humans, imbued by God with the powers of reason, are capable of comprehending, was instrumental in facilitating the rise of the empirical scientific method in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. I have a number of comments about Lennox’s use of this argument. The first point to make is simply that this historical thesis is, at best, highly controversial, and Lennox really made no effort at all to substantiate it – he just asserted it as if it were a proven fact.

Second, it obviously is not the case that Christianity per se led to the scientific revolution, since Christianity was widespread in Europe for some thousand years before the scientific revolution, and it seems exceptionally implausible to argue that cause can proceed effect by over a millennium in this way. A more reasonable argument would be that some particular form of Christianity arising from the reformation, or as Lennox puts it “the particular way the reformers read the bible”, led to the genesis of science. But even this adjusted argument has major problems. For one thing, it is unable to explain why so much good science was done in Catholic countries (especially France and Italy; case in point – Galileo). Additionally, it’s not at all clear just what reading the bible has to do with science, or what specific beliefs were so new to the Reformers that could have been relevant to the scientific enterprise (the idea of natural law certainly wasn’t new, and some of the reformers, such as Luther, were actively hostile to human reason).

Science in Other Civilizations

Third, this explanation of the origins of science is just inconsistent with history. Much early pioneering mathematics and science was done in ancient Babylon, and more by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Chinese in the first and early second millennium were advanced in many areas, notable inventions including movable type, gunpowder, banknotes. The Arab World for centuries led the Christian world in philosophy, science, and mathematics. If we are to take the religion argument seriously we would have to say that paganism, Buddhism/Confucianism, and Islam all at different times and different places contributed to the rise of science, but later stopped doing so as these regions ceased to be world scientific leaders. This seems quite ad hoc and to lack much of any explanatory power.

A far more plausible explanation, I think, is that scientific progress is the product of an immensely complex interplay of economic, political, social, environmental, and ideological factors, with religion at best playing a contributory, and by no means mono-directional role (i.e. the same religion could help or hinder science, depending upon the context). Lennox’s simplistic thesis totally fails to account for the facts, and is ridiculously naive in its oversimplification of historical reality. As such I see no reason to take it seriously as an argument for anything. Of course, I agree with Lennox that scientific progress is consistent with Christian belief, but that’s a much weaker and also, I think, far less interesting claim.

Explaining Language and Thought Naturalistically

“That writing there that you take to have meaning cannot be reduced to the physics and chemistry of the paper and ink on which these symbols appear…the problem is that it cannot be explained reductionistically”
“The one area when explanations do not move from the complex to the simple is in language”

Lennox made this argument in a number of different ways at different times. It was not entirely clear to me whether he was arguing that language cannot be explained by reductionistic/naturalistic means, or whether meaning itself cannot be so explained. I think probably what he meant was something like the semantic-bearing component of language – the fact that language means something – can’t in principle ever be explained by reductionistic materialism.

Theorists Who Disagree

Like the Christian origins of science, this issue is a very complex and controversial one; and yet as before, Lennox gave no hint of this in his presentation. He made no mention of thinkers like Paul and Patricia Churchland, David Marr, Daniel Dennett, Jerry Fodor, Hilary Putman, and many others who do think such a program is possible. Of course Lennox would also find support for his position in thinkers like John Searle (with is famous Chinese Room argument) and Rodger Penrose. My point here is not to decide that matter, but simply that the issue is a complex and controversial one, so Lennox’s confident claims that we can be sure that providing such an explanation is not possible are very difficult to justify – especially when he doesn’t even mention the controversy in the academic literature.

Progress in Semantics

Let me now consider whether we have made any progress in constructing a naturalistic explanation of meaning and/or semantic content. I’ll just list a few theories, schools of thought, and fields of research which I think are relevant:

  • Natural language processing
  • Context-free grammars
  • Semantic networks
  • Neural networks
  • Machine learning and pattern recognition
  • Formal semantics of logic (model-theoretic, proof-theoretic, and truth-value semantics)
  • Neurolinguistics
  • Machine translation
  • Computational linguistics
  • Neuroimaging and lesion analysis of brain regions associated with language

I am certainly not saying that these and similar fields or theories constitute a complete naturalistic explanation of the nature and genesis of meaning. Obviously we still have a great deal to learn, and much remains a mystery. What I am saying is that, as I think any honest analysis of these fields and theories will show, we have, over the past few decades, made considerable progress in understanding meaning and how the brain processes language, and there is ample reason to suppose that such progress will continue. Will there be absolute limits to this endeavour which leave any naturalistic explanation ultimately incomplete? Perhaps so, but my point here is that Lennox is dramatically overselling his case by simply asserting that this must be the case, ignoring the significant progress that has already been made in linguistics, computer science, psychology, and neuroscience, and also ignoring the significant philosophical disputes and complexities on the subject.

Understanding Reductionism

Furthermore, it seems patently false to say, as does Lennox, that ‘explanations of language are not reductionistic’. It’s true that such explanations do not attempt to reduce linguistic meaning to the physics and chemistry of the paper and ink, but that is a ridiculous strawman vision of the purpose of science and of the meaning of reductionism. We don’t attempt to reduce economic or sociological theories to chemistry and physics, but does that mean they are somehow mistaken or incomplete? Even biology cannot always be reduced to chemistry to any significant degree (e.g. we still don’t know the molecular bases of a good portion of biological functions).

Nonetheless, reductionistic explanations are still possible, if we think of them in the correct way. In the case of language, the reduction occurs by considering the symbols in which symbolic meaning is instantiated, and also the physical systems responsible for decoding those symbols (e.g. the human brain), and determining how they work. Current approaches in linguistics, machine translation, neuroscience, etc, are precisely reductionistic in this sense. But no sensible person thinks the meaning of symbols is to be found in a chemical analysis of the paper and ink. I find Lennox’s claim about this to be a totally bizarre strawman argument.

The Rational Intelligibility of the Universe

“Physics is powerless to explain its faith in the intelligibility of the universe, because you have to accept this before you even do any physics”

Intelligibility as a Working Hypothesis

I have always found this claim puzzling. It sounds to me like arguing that one needs to believe that a particular cake recipe will taste good, and that one will be able to follow all the steps of the recipe successfully, before one can even begin to bake the cake. Of course, I need not believe any such thing; all I need to believe is that these things might be true, and that it is worth my while to give it a try to see if they are or not. In my view, this is precisely what happens in science. We cannot say ex ante that a given theory or technique will work, or whether some phenomena will even be rationally intelligible at all – but nor do we need to. We try a bunch of different approaches and see if any of them work. If not, we try something else. Perhaps there will come a time when we say ‘we have tried every conceivable scientific approach to answer this question and all have failed, so it’s time to give up and admit defeat’. But I do not think we are in that situation about any topic of importance in science at the moment.

Lennox does think we are in that situation with respect to the origin of life: he said “if there is no possible natural explanation for the origin of life what you’d expect is for all attempts to do so will fail, and the problem will just get worse over time, and this is exactly what we have seen since the Urey-Miller experiments in the 1950s”. Looking at the state of the literature in that field I can’t say I agree with his assessment at all. Nonetheless, my point remains: just as we don’t have to believe that we can successfully bake a delicious cake in order to try out a recipe, so too we don’t have to believe that the universe necessarily is rationally intelligible in order to try out the scientific method and see if it works.

Lennox’s Questionable Axiom

While I am on the subject of foundational axiomatic beliefs, I will quote another thing Lenox said: “There is a basic axiom behind everything I do, and it’s a biblical axiom”. (Rom 1:19) ‘for what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it…so they are without excuse'”

I’m not precisely sure what Lennox was claiming to be his axiom here – that the bible is true, or that the world of God is plainly revealed in the bible, or that God has plainly revealed himself to the world? Whatever the case, I would wonder what justification Lennox would offer for this axiom, and why he considers it to be more plausible than, or superior to, the empirically far more successful presupposition of science that the universe is rationally intelligible. If he is allowed to adopt this highly controversial axiom without any particular justification, why cannot science proceed on the basis of a (generally less controversial) axiom (or as I prefer to think of it, a working hypothesis) that the universe (or parts thereof) is rationally intelligible?

Christian Contributions to Society

“It was Christians who helped with the abolition of slavery”
“Christianity is behind the declaration of human rights”
“So many of our institutions, universities, hospitals, and so on, are due to Christianity”

I generally find these sorts of arguments irrelevant and rather silly. They always seem to end in a game of counting up Gandhis verses Stalins on each side in a futile attempt at one-upmanship. This proves nothing either way – Christianity could be beneficial and false, and vice-versa for Atheism. That said, I do want to address the factual accuracy of some of Lennox’s claims here, because I think he is playing a bit fast and loose with the truth, and that is something I find objectionable.

Christianity and Abolitionism

Were Christians the leading proponents of the abolition of slavery? Certainly the early abolitionist movement in the UK was led by a number of religious figures, including evangelical Anglican William Wilberforce and the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which was founded mostly by Quakers. On the other hand, virtually everyone in the UK at that time was a Christian of some form, so it’s not completely clear what this tells us. If anything the main distinction of relevance seems to have been between mainstream Christian groups such as Anglicans on the one hand, and Dissenters (who were not eligible to serve in parliament) such as Quakers and Anabaptists on the other. So at best the UK abolitionist history gives us mixed support for Lennox’s thesis.

If we consider the situation in France, we note that the abolition of slavery first occurred under the First Republic in 1794 led by Robespierre, famous for his dechristianization policies and advocacy of the Cult of the Supreme Being, a rationalistic Deistic religion designed to replace Christianity as the French religion. Prior to the revolution, enlightenment figures such as Montesquieu had also argued against slavery. I’m not exactly sure what his religious views were, but he certainly is not strongly associated with any particular Christian group. Thus the French case does not appear to support Lennox’s thesis: the early abolitionist movement was largely non-Christian in origin. Note that after the revolution slavery was reinstated by Napoleon, who was a Catholic.

In the United States, the abolitionist movement was also in large part spearheaded by Quakers. On the other hand, as in the UK, virtually all those who opposed abolitionism were also Christians. Consider, for example, Virginian Baptist minister Thornton Stringfellow, who defended the institution of slavery on various biblical grounds. So once again we find mixed evidence.

So putting it all together, did Christians help with the abolition of slavery? Most definitely, especially the Quakers and other nonconformist groups. Did Christians hinder the abolition of slavery? Most definitely. Did non-Christians help the abolition of slavery? Definitely, as we see from Robespierre. Were there non-Christians who hindered the abolition of slavery? Probably: Hume had some rather unsavoury views about Negros, so he might be an example, though I’m not sure what his views were on slavery per se. My point here is that Lennox was just not being careful when he spoke about this. The facts are so much more complex, and it’s by no means clear that the reality of history supports his implication that Christianity per se (as opposed to people who were Christians) was instrumental for the abolition of slavery.

Christianity and Human Rights

Lennox’s claim that “Christianity is behind the declaration of human rights” is an intriguing one. I wonder which declaration he is referring to – there have been many. Perhaps he is referring to the famous statement from the American Declaration of Independence: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”. If so, it is very dubious indeed to say that ‘Christianity’ was behind this declaration, as a number of the most prominent of the Founding Fathers were either Deists or held various hybrid beliefs that some scholars have described as ‘Theistic Rationalism’. The famous 1798 Treaty of Tripoli also states “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion”. The precise meaning of this statement has been debated, but I think there is ample reason to be dubious of the notion that Christianity was “behind” this statement in the American Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was passed by the French National Assembly following the French Revolution, was very much a secular document with derived much of its intellectual heritage from Enlightenment thought, which was in general not atheistic, but also seldom supported traditional Christianity either. So considering these two cases, we once again find a much more complex and messy picture than is painted by Lennox. Christians were certainly involved in the early declarations of human rights, but to say that ‘Christianity’ as such was ‘behind them’ I think is a gross misstatement of history.

I think my point has already been sufficiently made, so I won’t comment specifically about hospitals and universities (look up ‘hospital’ on Wikipedia – Christians hardly invented them). I restate my core objection: Lennox’s history is sloppy, and his conclusions drastically oversimplified and premature.

The Evils of Atheism

“A corollary to this argument is that atheism is to blame for nothing…Imagine a world without Stalin. Without Hitler and Pol Pot”
“They (atheists) do not want anyone to draw a comparison between the communist attempts to obliterate religion and the current New Atheist attempts”
“The amount of blood that has been spilled by atheistic philosophies is colossal”

I’m not entirely sure why Lennox even brought this topic up. I don’t think he was arguing that Atheism was false because it has (allegedly) led to these evils. So why mention them in the context of a discussion about ‘reasons for faith’ and ‘science and faith’? These statements seem to be an almost complete red herring.

Hitler was no Atheist

There are many other problems with Lennox’s remarks here. First of all, he seems to be implying that Hitler was an atheist. Lennox did not say so explicitly, but he did say ‘atheism is to blame’, and then mentioned Hitler in between the names of two very staunchly atheistic communists (Stalin and Pol Pot), so I think it is legitimate to infer that he was at least implying that Hitler was an atheist. As anyone who has investigated the topic knows, the religious views of Adolf Hitler are a highly complex and controversial subject (I’m getting tired of saying this actually). Hitler made numerous statements on the subject that were often unclear or potentially contradictory. He certainly didn’t approve of mainstream Christianity, but of course that doesn’t make him an atheist. I personally don’t think the evidence supports the notion that Hitler was an atheist – I think he had too much of a sense of destiny and teleology for that view to make sense (though he wasn’t a very deep thinker so he might have just been inconsistent). Either way, I certainly think that casually throwing in Hitler in this way and implying that he was an Atheist is at best intellectually lazy, and at worst intellectually dishonest.

Atheism and Communism

As to the remark that atheists “do not want anyone to draw a comparison between the communist attempts to obliterate religion and the current New Atheist attempts” – is that supposed to come as a surprise? What Lennox is doing here is a dishonest and misleading bait and switch. Communism was atheistic, therefore contemporary atheists (or atheism generally) necessarily have some connection to the deeds of past Communist regimes. If this notion were to be applied consistently, it would mean that Christianity would have some necessary connection with the evils of the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, anti-Semitism across history, and any number of other evils perpetrated in the name of Christianity. Lennox argued that such evils should not be placed at the feet of Christianity because Jesus would have abhorred such things, and “no one who disobeys Jesus is a true Christian”. This is just the No True Scotsman fallacy – every Christian who does evil is not really Christian, but every Atheist who does evil is still a perfectly ‘real’ atheist.

Lennox’s Double Standards

Lennox, rightly, does not want to be associated with those Christians who advocated religious warfare or defended slavery on biblical grounds. Similarly, I do not want to be associated with communist leaders like Stalin and Pol Pot. For starters, I (like I think most atheists) am not a communist, and do not agree with much of their philosophy or politics. Furthermore, even modern-day communists generally deny that Stalin or Pol Pot (etc) were real or true communists. They were not following Marx’s actual teachings, nor would Marx have approved of their actions, so how could they be real Marxists? Sound familiar? Anyone can play this game.

I’m quite happy to agree that Stalin was an atheist. So what? Why would we think that his atheism was responsible for his crimes. He was also a Georgian – maybe that was to blame. Or maybe it was because he attended seminary. Or maybe it was because he had a moustache. Hitler had a moustache too, and modern-day moustache-wearers don’t like to compare Hitler’s and Stalin’s moustaches with their own pro-facial hair positions. To (mis)quote Lennox: it’s very important that we realise where the facial hair bus is going before we get on.

The Impossibility of Naturalistic Ethics

“The problem (with naturalistic ethical theories) is that if you leave god out and elevate any of these systems to the top, you run into serious problems. Well Hitler decided that the maximum benefit to the maximum number of people was to eliminate the Jews, Poles”
“On what principle can we say ‘Hitler you’ve got to obey this’? Why?”
“If there is no external basis for morality external to morality, how can any conception of morality be anything other than the mere opinion?”

Most Atheist Philosophers are Realists

This is another common apologetic argument – without God there can be no objective grounding for morality. Often this is defended by invoking certain quotes from Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and others (in a manner that I think misrepresents their views, but I won’t get into that here). I always find this strategy to be rather dishonest: selectively quote-mine some nihilistic or apparently nihilistic philosophers, whilst ignoring the fact that 59% of philosophers who are atheists are also moral realists (compared to 81% of theists – not actually such a big difference). So prima facie this argument already faces an uphill battle – most philosophers don’t buy it.

But what of Lennox’s specific arguments for this thesis? He didn’t actually offer many. At least in my experience, this is another common apologist tactic: to simply repeatedly assert that there is no objective morality without God, without actually giving any clear argument as to why this is the case.

Hitler was no Utilitarian

First let’s look at the case of Hitler. To begin with I’ll just say that its absurd to speak as if Hitler was a utilitarian in any sense. It is totally disingenuous of Lennox to make this insinuation. But even if Hitler had said that “the maximum benefit to the maximum number of people was to eliminate the Jews”, he would have been wrong. It’s hard to define what is meant by ‘benefit’ here, but however we cash out the concept (suffering, utility, human flourishing, whatever), it seems incontrovertible that the Holocaust did not promote human benefit. How could the Nazis get around this? They could, and in fact did, argue that Jews were sub-human, and therefore not worthy of ethical consideration. But how did they defend this assertion? They used pseudoscientific arguments drawn from bad anthropology and worse social Darwinism. They used misrepresentations of history and manipulation of contemporary social indicators (e.g. the Nazis argued that hardly any Jews fought for Germany in WWI, illustrating their cowardice, but this was just factually incorrect).

So the Nazi justification for oppressing the Jews was based upon bad reasoning and inaccurate information. As such, we can marshal any number of reasons against their contention that ‘the Jews were subhuman’, without invoking God at all. Indeed, God contributes nothing to this analysis. There’s nothing surprising about this. When we think about why the Nazis were wrong, we talk about the horrific harm they did, and the false beliefs they had about race (among other things). God does not figure into the explanation at all. No appeal to a creator is needed to understand that Auschwitz was a horrific crime – the suffering and death of so many sentient beings speaks for itself.

Why be Moral?

But suppose our imaginary utilitarian-Hitler were to really push the gauntlet. Suppose he were to say “I’m not saying the Jews are subhuman in any real biological sense. I’m just saying that I don’t wish to accord them any moral value. My moral framework only accords moral value to Aryans. Thus the Holocaust, by benefitting Aryans, was a morally good action according to my utilitarian framework.” This would be where Lennox would insert his rejoinder: “on what principle can we say ‘Hitler you’ve got to obey this’? Why?” How can the naturalist say that Hitler is wrong about not according moral value to Jews? Well, I think the naturalist can make an argument about that, but it would take rather a long time to explain, because meta-ethics is complicated.

For now, let me just reverse the challenge: what can the theist say to Hitler? According Jews zero moral value is wrong because God says so? Why should Hitler care what God says, even if he did believe that God exists? Who says that God gets to dictate morality? God said that? But that’s circular: Hitler says that he gets to dictate morality. Is it because God is all powerful? That’s just a variant of might makes right. Perhaps Hitler might be persuaded by that sort of argument, but the naturalist likely will not. God gets to dictate morality because God is good? But how can you say ‘God is good’ without antecedently having a concept of what the good actually is? Good with reference to what standard of good – God’s own standard? Hitler too was good by his own standard of good; why is God’s standard superior? Because he is more powerful? Now we are back to might makes right.

These are deep questions, and of course this brief post will by no means exhaust the debate. But hopefully I have illustrated my main point: Lennox has got a lot more work to do if we wishes to show that theistic ethics succeeds where non-theistic ethics fails.

Subjective doesn’t mean ‘Not Real’

Let me address a final comment Lennox made: “If there is no external basis for morality external to morality, how can any conception of morality be anything other than the mere opinion?” I find this to be a strange thing to say. First of all, I don’t think any naturalist would want to say that there was ‘no external basis’ for morality. Surely morality would be based on the interactions and circumstances of people (and perhaps also animals), facts about the external world which are not ‘mere opinion’. But I think perhaps what Lennox means is something like “why would any statement to the effect that we should place value on some external state of affairs be anything other than mere opinion?”

In responding to this, I want to draw attention to the phrase “mere opinion”. I would ask Lennox why he thinks that ‘opinion’ is necessarily ‘mere’ in any sense? Why should the fact that something is solely the product of human evaluative opinion make it any less real or important? Is the beauty of Mozart’s music ‘merely’ human opinion? The fact that money is valuable is certainly the product of ‘mere human opinion’ – there’s no value to money outside of the value we place on it. Similarly with language – there’s no meaning at all to the sound ‘tree’ other than that we humans place on it as a result of our subjective opinion. Would Lennox also ask “if there is no external basis for the value of money, how can any conception of the value of money be anything other than mere opinion”? Of course the value of money is ‘merely opinion’, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value, or that the value of money is somehow less ‘real’.

And to push the analogy further, if a divine being declared that money was valuable by fiat, that wouldn’t actually change anything. People would still only place value on money if in their opinion it had value (this is why governments do not always succeed in having their fiat currencies accepted by the population). Likewise for language: the best attempts of the Académie Française aside, no external being or body can imbue meaning in a word by fiat, unless people themselves also had a subjective sense that this is indeed what the word means. All the world’s governments could declare tomorrow that ‘green’ actually means ‘blue’, but unless people’s subjective opinions on the matter also changed in this way, the governments would simply be wrong – the words would not mean that. Furthermore, people may disagree about the beauty of a Mozart piece, of the value of a particular currency, or the meaning of a word. But such disagreement does not entail the fact that ‘all opinions are equally valid’, or that all such talk is meaningless and without meaning or real purpose.

My point here is not to say that morality is the same as aesthetic value, or monetary value, or linguistic meaning. Obviously there are differences. My point is simply that things can be both ‘mere opinion’ and still also be perfectly real and meaningful. If Lennox wishes to argue that morality is useless or meaningless if it is ‘mere opinion’, then he will need to present a cogent argument to that effect – something he did not do in his presentations.


Though he did say some things that I agreed with, such as calling for more civil dialogue between believers and non-believers and rightly calling out many of the New Atheist thinkers for their sloppy philosophy, overall I was disappointed with Lennox’s presentations. I felt that his arguments were, generally speaking, unstructured, sloppily presented, imprecisely expressed, and inadequately researched. He frequently oversimplified complicated and controversial questions, and seemed far too willing to dismiss the fact that a sizeable majority of experts in the relevant field disagree with his opinion (e.g. in the case of evolution and his views about moral realism and theism). Of course Lennox’s time was limited, so he was unable to go into complete depth on any subject, but he did have over four hours in total at his disposal, and I think he could have done much more than he did in that time. Overall I did not find the case that Lennox presented for Christianity to be very compelling at all, nor do I think it dealt very directly or ably with any of the core philosophical questions at the heart of the dispute. In my view, Christian apologetics deserves better than this.

PolesWikipedia: The Poles are a nation of predominantly West Slavic ethnic origin who are native to East-Central Europe, inhabiting mainly Poland. The present population of Poles living in Poland is estimated at 36,522,000 out of the overall Poland population of 38,512,000. The preamble to the Constitution of the Republic of Poland defines the Polish nation as comprising all the citizens of Poland.

The Price of a Mile: Reflections on the Folly of the Great War


On this the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, I share some thoughts and reflections concerning this great conflict. I discuss the enormous human cost of the war, and the flagrant disregard for life displayed by all sides throughout its course. I analyze the utter futility and pointlessness of the war, and examine how this pointlessness contrasted with the rationalistic manner in which technology was applied to the conflict. I then discuss the peace settlement, examining how it failed to achieve a stable postwar geopolitical settlement, and thus sowed the seeds for the next great conflict. I conclude with some thoughts on the importance of studying and remembering history.

Such Waste of Life

Some ten million soldiers and perhaps six million civilians died in World War One. This included entire generations of young men from many of the major combatant nations: 1.4 million from France, 2 million from Russia, 2 million from Germany, 1.3 million from Austro-Hungary, and 1 million from the British Empire. Many millions more returned home wounded. The psychological effect of the war was also immense: among the British forces, the term ‘shell shock’ came to be used to describe the symptoms of dizziness, amnesia, headache, etc which, in the absence of any obvious physical injury, plagued an increasingly large proportion of the men who had been exposed to prolonged artillery bombardment in the trenches, unable to either flee or fight back.

Throughout the conflict, all sides exhibited a disgustingly profligate disregard for human life. The Battle of Verdun, an eleven month campaign consisting of several waves of German assaults against the French fortress at Verdun, left about 300,000 men dead, and the front lines almost exactly where they had been at the commencement of the engagement. During the Battle of the Somme, the British suffered 60,000 causalities in a single day, with total deaths by the end of the six-month battle amounting to another 300,000 men. This battle was a victory for the allies – they managed to advance a grand total of six miles into the German lines. The well-known debacle at Gallipoli cost 110,000 lives, and achieved absolutely nothing – aside, that is, from the establishment of a rather perverse national obsession and related tourism industry in two of the less important combatant nations.

What was the Purpose of it All?

One is driven to wonder: what was the purpose of all this suffering and death? Why did millions of young lives continue to be poured into this immense conflict for over four years, to be killed or maimed by machine guns, artillery shrapnel, and air bombardment? It is  comforting to think that such death served a purpose – that the sacrifice was not in vain. But that is by no means clear. Even a century later, scholars still hotly debate the contributing factors which led to the outbreak of the war. Some causes are widely agreed upon: the balance of power struggle between the emerging power of Germany and the more established empires of Britain and France,  tensions between Russia, Austria, and other nations stemming from the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the rise in nationalist sentiment throughout Europe, and also the false confidence among many about how quickly any war could be brought to an end.

These factors, however, are all quite vague and high-level. They might be able to explain why a war broke out, but that’s not quite the same as explaining why, for instance, Germany and France each thought that it was a good idea to send millions of their young men to stand around in trenches for four years hurling bombs and projectiles at each other. What did either nation get from that? What was the point? Why were they fighting? Why were Russians dying in Poland, Americans in France, and Australians in Turkey? When the obfuscatory veil of diplomatic and geopolitical machinations is lifted, it is hard not to see the entire war for what it truly was: pure, unadulterated, folly. It served no purpose at all. All those men died for no reason whatever.

A Rationalistic Stupidity

Although the war itself was completely devoid of reason, the means by which it was carried out were anything but. One especially amazing thing about the war was the immense energy and ingenuity with which all the new wonders of science and technology were turned to the task of killing as many people as possible. Chemical weapons, machine guns, barbed wire, aircraft, tanks, submarines, railways, flamethrowers, wireless, telephones – all harnessed to make more efficient the process of getting bodies into trenches, smashing pieces of metal into these bodies at high velocity, and then removing removing the bodies from the trenches again. In a very real sense, the war represented the culmination of the industrial revolution. For the first time, the killing of young men had been turned into a mechanised, standardised, ‘rational’ assembly-line procedure.

The Failed Peace

Perhaps one of the most odious aspects of the war, somewhat ironically, was the manner in which it ended. In my view, the peace settlement established by the Treaty of Versailles was one of the most ill-conceived in the history of warfare. In particular, the war guilt clause (which placed the blame for the war entirely upon Germany), the loss of its colonies, the large reparations, and the sharp limitations on its armed forces (it was limited to 100,000 men, banned from having an airforce, and prohibited from using tanks or submarines), left Germany greatly humiliated and desirous of some kind of reprisal. Germany was not, however, substantively weakened as a military or economic power, as it retained most of its territory and industry. This was perhaps the worst outcome possible. German industry was left intact. The General Staff was preserved. Scientific and military expertise were retained. All that was achieved was to give Germany the justification and motivation to achieve redress by violent means. My point is not that the treaty was unfair or too harsh. My point is that it achieved the worst possible compromise: it looked harsh without actually being very harsh. Thus the seeds for the next war were well and truly planted.

Versailles also created a profusion of new, unstable, and in some cases (e.g. Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia) quite arbitrary new states, which produced a very profound power vacuum in central and eastern Europe. Even worse was the manner in which the provisions of the treaty were enforced. The United States refused to join the League of Nations (the newly created international organization tasked with preventing another great war), instead choosing to withdraw into political isolationism. This dramatically limited the effectiveness of the body, which without the involvement of the US proved to have very little real power. Britain and France likewise proved relatively unwilling to take action to maintain the treaty: most of the reparations were never paid, and virtually nothing was done throughout the course of the 1930s as Hitler openly violated one provision of the treaty after another. The League also proved to be completely unable to prevent conflict, doing virtually nothing to stop Italian, Japanese, and German aggression during the 1930s.

All in all, then, the peace settlement was badly designed, and that botched settlement itself was poorly implemented. The result was that the one thing which the First World War did have the potential to produce – a stable new international geopolitical system – was not to be found. When the treaty was signed in 1919, French Marshal Ferdinand Foch declared with remarkable foresight: “This is not peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years”.

The Legacy of History

The ‘War to End All Wars’, as it was called, did not live up to this grand title. It did succeed in ending four major world empires, a century of relative peace in Europe, the sense of optimism and progression that had pervaded the West over the past few decades, and over fifteen million lives. It did not, however, succeed in ending war. Though its consequences were profound, the war itself was an utterly senseless waste of life and resources.

More than anything, we must remember that this happened only a century ago, in what was considered (not without reason) to be the most ‘developed’, ‘advanced’, and ‘enlightened’ part of the world. We may think this could not happen to us in this day and age – we’ve moved beyond that sort of thing. Perhaps. But, on the other hand, new mothers of the 1890s did not expect to see their sons dying by the millions in the mud of the trenches. If we hope to avoid such a catastrophic folly from recurring in our time, we would do well to heed the lessons from history. And how can we heed the lessons of history of we do not learn about history, talk about history, think about history? For this and many reasons beside, history is vital.

Lest We Forget.


70 Years On: Why D-Day still Matters

I discuss the historical background behind the Normandy Landings, why there are important, what impact they had on history, and why it is important they be commemorated.

Historical Overview
Today marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, which took place on the 6th of June 1944. The term “D-Day” is a generic military term which simply refers to the day on which an operation will be initiated, and is used for the purpose of secrecy and convenience. So, for example, military planners can lay out the sequence of objectives of an operation as occurring on D-Day, D+1, D+2, etc, without needing to refer to specific calendar dates which may be subject to change. Although still used in a generic sense, the term “D-Day” has now become strongly linked to the Allied invasion of German occupied France in 1944.

During the period of late 1939 and through to mid 1941, the Germans conducted a series of highly-successful military campaigns using a strategy which has come to be known as Blitzkrieg, or “Lightning War”. In this period, the Germans successfully defeated and occupied Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, France, Yugoslavia, and Greece. In addition, the states of Hungary, Romania, Italy, Bulgaria, and Finland were allied to the Germans. Spain, though officially neutral, was under the control of Franco, a fascist dictator whom Hitler had assisted in coming to power in the Spanish Civil War. Likewise Sweden, though also neutral, was fairly willing to accommodate Nazi demands for resources and other cooperation. Taken together, therefore, the from roughly the period of mid 1941 to mid-late 1944, almost all of Continental Europe was essentially under either direct or indirect German control, in what was known as “Occupied Europe”.

I mention all this because I think it is important to understand the backdrop against which the D-Day landings took place. In a very short period of time, the Germans had brought almost all of Europe to its knees. The mighty French army, lead by Pétain , hero of the First World War, was defeated in a mere six weeks. Though the Germans were later to face defeats against the Soviets, and also against the Western Allies (that is, Britain and the USA) in North Africa and Italy, taking the war back to the mainland in the west once again represented an enormous undertaking, not merely in terms of manpower and logistics, but also in terms of psychology. The courage and commitment of the men and women who made this invasion possible, therefore, cannot easily be overestimated.

Almost immediately after Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, in June 1941, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had been pressuring the Western Allies to open a “second front” in Western Europe. Some moves were made in this direction with the 1942 Torch landings in North Africa, and with the invasion of southern Italy in 1943, but neither of these campaigns represented the substantial commitment that Stalin wanted. He wanted a “real” second front, one which would pose a significant threat to Germany, and force the Germans to redirect substantial forces away from the Eastern Front. This, most fundamentally, was the purpose of the Normandy Landings: to open up a second front that would take significant pressure off the Soviet Union, and force Germany into a true two-front war, thereby draining its resources and bringing the war to an end as quickly as possible.

The Scale of the Landings

The D-Day landings remain to this day the largest amphibious military assault in history. About 160,000 Allied troops crossed the channel on D-Day itself, transported and escorted by some 5000 ships and landing craft. The landings were also accompanied by a massive bombing campaign of military targets all across the French coast, and also airborne landing of some 24,000 troops behind enemy lines to assist in securing the initial bridgeheads. Planning for the massive operation began over a year beforehand, and in addition to a very large buildup of ships, tanks, and troops in Southern Britain, preparations also included an elaborate campaign of deception designed to mislead the Germans as to the intended target of the operation. This deception proved to be so successful that, even many hours after the landings had begun, Hitler remained convinced that the attacks on Normandy were only a diversion, and that the real invasion would take place in the Pas de Calais, where the distance across the English Channel is shortest. By the end of June, some 900,000 Allied troops had been landed in France, a remarkable achievement.

What if D-Day had Failed?

Although today it seems, with the benefit of hindsight, that D-Day was an inevitable success, at the time this was by no means clear, and the operation was considered to be incredibly risky. Had any number of factors turned out differently, such as poor weather, German intelligence gaining better information about the time and place of the landings, or if Hitler had freed up the Panzer reserves earlier to counterattack the beachheads, the allies could very well have been driven back into the sea. Eisenhower even penned a brief message, never used, to be read in the event that the landings were a failure. Had this occurred, it would have been a massive blow to Allied morale, and a huge boon to that of the Germans. Given the immense scale of the operation and the resources involved, the Allies would likely have been unable to launch a second attempt until early 1945 at the earliest. The Allied high command structure would likely have been shaken up (e.g. it is quite plausible that Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander responsible for the Normandy Landings, would have resigned), and possibly (though in my view somewhat less likely) the Americans would have decided to refocus their energies and manpower on first defeating the Japanese in the Pacific.

Perhaps most importantly, huge numbers of German troops, tanks, aircraft, and other supplies would have been freed up for transfer to the Eastern Front to fight against the Soviet Union. To give some sense of the magnitude of this, during early 1942, when the threat of invasion was lowest, the Germans maintained only 32 divisions in Western Europe. This was gradually increased in the lead up to and immediate aftermath of the Normandy Landings, reaching a peak of 79 German divisions in Western Europe by January 1945. This means that, if in the aftermath of a failed D-Day landing the Germans had been able to reduce troop levels in Western Europe to early 1942 levels, some 45 additional divisions would have been available for deployment on the Eastern Front, increasing German forces by about one third.

This substantial increase in German strength would also have been augmented by rising German production of tanks, aircraft, and munitions, which, in spite of losing ground in the East and coming under increasingly heavy attack in the Strategic Bombing Offensive, still actually peaked in August of 1944. As an illustration, the Soviet Union produced 24,000 tanks in 1942 and 29,000 in 1944, a fairly similar number. Germany, by contrast, increased tank production from a mere 6,000 in 1942 to 19,000 in 1944. Similarly, while the Soviets produced 10,000 fighter aircraft in 1942 compared to 5,500 by the Germans, in 1944 the balance had reversed, with 18,000 produced by the Soviets compared to 26,000 by the Germans. Thus, if D-Day had failed and the Germans been able to maintain these higher production levels their strength on the Eastern Front would have been substantially increased, thereby permitting the war to be prolonged considerably, and perhaps even shifting the balance in the Germans’ favour.

To this must also be added the “Wunderwaffe”, or ‘superweapons’ that German scientists and engineers were developing and beginning to deploy in late 1944 and early 1945. These weapons included the V-1 flying bomb and V-2 rockets used to attack British cities, jet aircraft much faster than any of the propeller-driven machines possessed by the Allies, super-heavy tanks like the Tiger II virtually impenetrable to the guns of any Allied tank, the Elektroboot U-boats capable of operating fully-submerged, and the Sturmgewehr 44, the world’s first assault rifle which offered much higher rates of fire. None of these weapons were fielded in sufficient numbers to have any appreciable effect on the outcome of the war, but if the D-Day landings had failed and the war been prolonged, it is quite possible these weapons could have begun to have a significant effect.

As a result of all these factors, it is my belief that if the D-Day landings had failed, there is a small chance that Germany would have been able to win the war, or at least come to some sort of peace agreement with the Soviets after fighting them to a stalemate. More likely, I think, is that the Soviet Union would have been able to defeat Germany even without the second front, though with the continued assistance of the Allied aerial bombing campaign and also provision of materials and manufactured goods from America. This, however, would have lengthened the war considerably, probably by at least a year, and perhaps more if the German production increases and Wunderwaffe had a sufficiently large impact. The consequences of this prolongation of the war would have been enormous. The Soviet Union would likely have suffered several million more deaths, with the Germans also suffering perhaps one or two million more as well. In addition, it must not be forgotten that the Nazis were pushed back and defeated before they had completed their genocidal campaign against the Jews, such that by war’s end several hundred thousand Jews were still alive in each of Hungary and Romania, with hundreds of thousands more scattered throughout other occupied countries. If the Germans had an additional year or more to continue implementing their Endlösung, the Holocaust could have claimed many hundreds of thousands more victims.

A failure at D-Day would also have drastically changed the face of postwar Europe. At the very least, the Soviets would likely have occupied all of Germany and Austria, and quite possibly also some or all of France, Greece, and the Low Countries. This would have had enormous and unpredictable consequences for the development of Cold War politics, and also on the postwar social and economic development of Europe. Quite possibly the Cold War would not have ended in the same way as it did (for one thing there would have likely been no Berlin Wall, for Stalin probably would not have allowed the Western Allies into Berlin at all), and likely the European Union would not exist in anything like the form we know it today. Although the overall balance of consequences is impossible to assess, it seems highly likely to me that having most or all of Continental Europe dominated by the Soviet Union would not have been a desirable outcome, either for Europe itself or for the world at large.

Remembering the Past

In concluding this piece, I want to make a few remarks. First, I want to emphasize just how important the D-Day Landings were in shaping the outcome of World War Two, and hence also in effecting the progress of history ever since. The courage, boldness, and resolve of those who planned and supported the operation, and most especially of the Allied troops actually involved in the landings, is worthy of our greatest respect and esteem, something to be remembered for the rest of time. Their actions, as I have outlined above, likely saved millions of lives, and also helped to prevent tens of millions of people falling under the grip of Communism. What a truly amazing achievement.

Second, I want to emphasize something that I think is often overlooked in these discussions of D-Day, at least in the West, which is that, as important as the D-Day landings were, they should nonetheless still be considered to be essentially a ‘second act’, so to speak, to the main scene of the action in the Eastern Front. It is estimated that perhaps 70% of all German military manpower over the course of the war was directed to the Eastern Front. The sacrifice of the Soviet people was immense: total civilian and military losses in the war against Germany totaled about 27 million people, about 13% of the total population. The Western Allies, in comparison, lost only perhaps one million people in the fight against Germany. Thus, the importance of D-Day must always, in my view, be understood in the light of the enormous sacrifice by the Soviet Union in defeating the Nazis.

Third, I want to mention a point that I read in a number of articles that I read on the issue, which is that this will likely be the last major commemoration of the D-Day landings at which a significant number of veterans will be present. The landings were 70 years ago now, meaning even the youngest veterans are approaching 90 years of age. The Normandy Veterans Association, whose numbers have been rapidly dwindling in recent years, is set to disband in November this year. Within only a few decades, there will no longer be any World War Two veterans left alive. It will be up to us, therefore, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the generation who fought in the war, to remember their great sacrifice and courage.

Although this is slightly tangential to D-Day per se, I particularly worry about this with respect to the Holocaust. How will the memory of this most awful crime be kept alive in a real, visceral, meaningful way without living survivors to tell of it? I think it can be done, but doing so requires that we learn history, think about it, ponder what it means, consider how the actions and decisions of those in the past shapes the present and will continue to shape the future. It is in order to keep these memories alive, so that deeds of great valour and awful crimes alike, will not be forgotten and perhaps can even be learned from, that we commemorate anniversaries such as today.

Lest We Forget.