Daily Archives: 25 August 2008

End of the Americo-Liberian Aristocracy, 1980

From The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2005), pp. 545-548:

In his book Journey Without Maps, an account of his travels in Liberia in the 1930s, the English writer Graham Greene recorded that ‘Liberian politics were like a crap game played with loaded dice’. It was a game that Liberia’s ruling elite – the descendants of some 300 black settler families from the United States who set up an independent republic in 1847 – played among themselves with considerable relish. For more than 100 years – from 1877 to 1980 – Liberia was governed under a one-party system in which the same party, the True Whig Party, controlled by the same elite group, held office continuously, dispensing patronage, deciding on public appointments and retaining a monopoly on power – a record equalled by no other political party anywhere in the world. Elections were nevertheless taken seriously, if only to determine which family – the Barclays, the Kings, the Tubmans – emerged on top. ‘The curious thing about a Liberian election campaign,’ wrote Greene, ‘is that, although the result is always a foregone conclusion, everyone behaves as if the votes and the speeches and the pamphlets matter.’ However, he added, the system was more complicated than it seemed. ‘It may be all a question of cash and printing presses and armed police, but things have to be done with an air. Crudity as far as possible is avoided.’

As members of a ruling aristocracy, the Americo-Liberians, as they called themselves, were immensely proud of their American heritage. They developed a lifestyle reminiscent of the antebellum South, complete with top hats and morning coats and masonic lodges. They built houses with pillared porches, gabled roofs and dormer windows resembling the nineteenth-century architectural styles of Georgia, Maryland and the Carolinas. They chose as a national flag a replica of the American Stars and Stripes, with a single star, and used the American dollar as legal tender.

Just like white settlers in Africa, the Americo-Liberians constructed a colonial system subjugating the indigenous population to rigid control and concentrating wealth and privilege in their own hands. Despite their origins as descendants of slaves from the Deep South, they regarded black Liberians as an inferior race, fit only for exploitation. The nadir of Americo-Liberian rule came in 1931 when an international commission found senior government officials guilty of involvement in organised slavery.

When other West African states shed colonial rule in the 1960s, the Liberian system stayed much the same. Liberian law stipulated that only property owners were entitled to the vote, so the vast majority of indigenous Africans were effectively left without one. Small numbers were assimilated into the ranks of the ruling elite: ‘country boys’ adopted by coastal families; girls selected as wives or concubines; ambitious ‘hinterlanders’ climbing the ladder. During the 1970s a few were co-opted into government. Local administration in the ‘hinterland’ was largely run by indigenous officials. But essentially Liberia remained an oligarchy where 1 per cent of the population controlled the rest – some 2 million people.

The last of the line of Americo-Liberian presidents was William Tolbert, the grandson of freed South Carolina slaves who had served as vice-president for twenty years. A Baptist minister, he attempted a series of cautious reforms, abandoning the top hat and tail-coat traditions favoured by his predecessor, William Tubman, selling the presidential yacht and abolishing a compulsory ‘tithe’ of 10 per cent of every government employee’s salary that went to the True Whig Party. But much of Tolbert’s efforts were also devoted to amassing a personal fortune and promoting the interests of family members in the traditional manner. One brother was appointed minister of finance; another was chosen as president of the senate; a son-in-law served as minister of defence; other relatives filled posts as ministers, ambassadors and presidential aides. The crap game of Liberian politics was as highly profitable in the 1970s as in the 1930s.

Economic development in the 1960s and 1970s helped underpin the system, as well as provide new opportunities for the elite’s self-enrichment. The mainstay of the economy had initially been rubber. In 1926 the Firestone Tyre and Rubber Company leased a million acres for ninety-nine years at six cents an acre to meet the American demand for car tyres. But iron ore exports from massive, high-grade deposits in the Bomi hills then overtook rubber as the major source of foreign investment and government income. By 1970 Firestone and the Liberian Iron Mining Company were providing the government with 50 per cent of greatly increased revenues. A third source of income came from registration fees from the world’s largest ghost fleet of ships: Liberia possessed only two ships of its own, but allowed more than 2,500 vessels plying the seas to fly Liberia’s flag of convenience without the bother of inspection, for a suitable fee.

Liberia ‘s economic advances, however, served only to highlight the growing disparity between the ostentatious lifestyle of the rich elite and the overwhelming majority of impoverished tribal Africans. In 1979 – the same year that Tolbert spent an amount equivalent to half the national budget while acting as host to an OAU heads of state conference – demonstrators took to the streets in protest against a 50 per cent increase in the price of rice, the staple food of most Liberians. The price increase had been authorised by Tolbert in the hope of encouraging local production. But since one of the chief beneficiaries was the president’s cousin, Daniel Tolbert, who owned the country’s largest rice-importing firm, it was seen as another move to enrich the elite. On Tolbert’s orders armed police and troops opened fire on the demonstrators, killing dozens of them.

In the following months Tolbert struggled to contain a rising tide of discontent, colliding not just with the poor but with a new generation of the educated elite. He allowed the formation of an opposition party, but when opposition politicians called for a general strike, he had them arrested on charges of treason and sedition and banned the party.

On the night of 12 April 1980 a group of seventeen dissident soldiers led by a 28-year-old master sergeant named Samuel Doe, scaled the iron gate of the president’s seven-storey Executive Mansion, overpowered the guards and found Tolbert in his pyjamas in an upstairs bedroom. They fired three bullets into his head, gouged out his right eye and disembowelled him. His body was dumped in a mass grave along with twenty-seven others who died defending the palace. Ministers and officials were rounded up, taken before a military tribunal and sentenced to death.

Amid much jubilation, watched by a crowd of thousands laughing and jeering and filmed by camera crews, thirteen high-ranking officials were tied to telephone poles on a beach in Monrovia and executed by a squad of drunken soldiers, firing volley after volley at them. A great shout arose from the mob. ‘Freedom! We got our freedom at last!’ The soldiers rushed forward to kick and pummel the corpses.

Thus the old order ended.

Thus begins the chapter entitled “Blood Diamonds,” in which the barbarism only gets worse and worse. Few societies have solved the problem of how to overthrow recalcitrant aristocrats without descending into a period of barbarism that only serves to unduly enhance nostalgia for prerevolutionary times, as Theodore Dalrymple observes in his retrospective on Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

The Russian satirical writer Vladimir Voinovich satirized Solzhenitsyn’s Russian nationalism by depicting someone resembling him having his employees flogged in Vermont. This satirical scene, in fact, made a profound criticism of Solzhenitsyn’s political thought. Voinovich was alluding to the fact that, were it not for the horrors of Bolshevism, the pre-revolutionary Russian political tradition would be regarded as so brutal that no sensitive person of good will could be a Russian nationalist. As it was, the Bolsheviks regularly killed in a few minutes more people than the Romanovs managed in a century, giving pre-revolutionary Russian history the retrospective luster of decency, wisdom, and compassion that it did not in the least deserve. For Voinovich—and the distinguished historian of Russia Richard Pipes—Leninism had its roots in the Russian tradition as well as the Marxist one. This meant that Solzhenitsyn, while absolutely right in his uncompromising attitude to Marxist-Leninism and all its works, belonged in the category of Dostoevsky: a brilliant seer who would nevertheless have made a very bad guide.

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Religion and Romania’s Iron Guard

From Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, From the Great War to the War on Terror, by Michael Burleigh (HarperCollins, 2007), pp. 270-271:

Few European Fascist movements went so far as to proclaim that ‘God is a Fascist!’ or that ‘the ultimate goal of the Nation must be resurrection in Christ!’ Romania was the exception. Romanian Fascists wanted ‘a Romania in delirium’ and they largely got one. The Legion of the Archangel Michael was founded in 1927 in honour of the archangel, who had allegedly visited Corneliu Codreanu, its chief ideologist, while he was in prison. It was the only European Fascist movement with religion (in this case Romanian Orthodoxy) at its core. In 1930 the Legion was renamed the Iron Guard. While rivalling only the Nazis in the ferocity of their hatred of Jews, these Romanian Fascists were sui generis in their fusion of political militancy with Orthodox mysticism into a truly lethal whole. One of the Legion’s intellectual luminaries, the world-renowned anthropologist Mircea Eliade, described the legionary ideal as ‘a harsh Christian spirituality’. Its four commandments were ‘belief in God; faith in our mission; love for one another; son’. The goal of a ‘new moral man’ may have been a totalitarian commonplace, but the ‘resurrection of the [Romanian] people in front of God’s throne’ was not routine in such circles. But then few European Fascists were inducted into an elite called the Brotherhood of Christ by sipping from a communal cup of blood filled from slashes in their own arms, or went around with little bags of soil tied around their necks. Nor did they do frenzied dances after chopping opponents into hundreds of pieces. Not for nothing was the prison massacre of Iron Guard leaders – including the captain Codreanu himself – by supporters of King Carol II known to local wits as ‘the Night of the Vampires’. Although the Romanian elites emasculated the Guard’s leadership, much of their furious potential was at that elite’s disposal.

Hitler’s conquests in western Europe in 1940 led Carol II to abandon his country’s alignment with Britain and to seek a role for Romania within the all-conquering German ‘new order’. That June, the Soviet Union took Bessarabia and Bukovina under the terms of the deal it had struck with Hitler. Three million Romanian Orthodox Christians languished under an alien and atheist regime, a state of affairs that outraged opinion in the Old Kingdom. In September 1940 Carol invited the military strongman, General Ion Antonescu, to form a government, which within a month deposed the king in favour of his son prince Michael, who is still the claimant to the throne of Romania. Because, like Franco, Antonescu lacked a political base, he revived the Legion so as to provide a basis for what became the ‘National Legionnaire State’. The Iron Guard leader, Horia Sima, became vice-premier, and the Guard gained five ministerial portfolios. For the ensuing five months the Guard attempted a stealthy coup from within, even as their corruption and violence created chaos. Since sections of the Nazi leadership favoured the Guard, the wily Antonescu knew where to turn.

In January 1941, Antonescu flew to Germany for a meeting with Hitler , whose troops were massing in Romania for the projected invasion of the Soviet Union. The strong personal rapport between these two implacable haters of the Jews enabled Antonescu to provoke and crush a revolt by the Guard after he returned home; nine thousand were detained and eighteen hundred sentenced to imprisonment. The Guard was proscribed and the Legionnaire State abandoned. Antonescu assumed the title of ‘conducator’ used by the murdered Codreanu, while his son Mihai became vice-premier of a government largely consisting of antisemites of the National Christian Party, for in this respect the old elites were no different from the Fascists. Acting reflexively in its search for someone to blame, the Guard carried out a pogrom in Bucharest, killing 630 Jews, some of whose corpses hung in the capital’s slaughterhouse as ‘kosher meat’.

In 1983-84, we lived in an apartment at the north end of Parcul Tineretului within easy walking distance of both the main slaughterhouse and the main crematorium, the latter surrounded by huge cemeteries, including Cimitirul Israelit. (The crematorium features in Saul Bellow’s novel The Dean’s December, which we read that year.) Here’s my translation of the paragraph on the history of the crematorium at the link above:

The crematorium “Cenusa” [‘Ash’] is one of the few monuments in Bucharest that is closely tied to the recent history of Romania. The first person incinerated here after its inauguration in 1928 was Profira Fieraru, a woman who died at the age of 40. The opening of the crematorium was the subject of controversy between church and state, leading to discussion of the legitimacy of the burning of cadavers from the point of view of religious doctrine. Among those said to have been cremated in “Cenusa” are General Antonescu, several legionnaires from the interwar period, and Ana Pauker from the communist period. At the Revolution of 1989, those 43 people killed at Timisoara were brought to the crematorium and incinerated, but their ashes were thrown away.

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