Tuesday, July 17, 2018

A Centennial That Should Not Be ignored

It wasn't quite the crime of the century, but Lenin's murder of Russian Tsar Nicholas II and his family 100 years ago today was certainly one early and highly symbolic instance of the murderous criminality that would characterize so much of the 20th century. If the murder of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette symbolically sums up the moral depravity unleashed by the French Revolution, likewise the murder of the Romanovs symbolically sums up the moral depravity of the Soviet regime, which directly or indirectly led to so much death and destruction in eastern Europe and elsewhere throughout the 20th century. 

Initial reports of the Emperor's murder were followed by confirmation of the killing of the whole family. "I hear from Russia that there is every probability that Alicky and the four daughters and the little boy were murdered at the same time as Nicky," wrote their cousin, Britain's King George V. "It is too horrible and shows what fiends those Bolshevists are." Indeed it did, but more than that it showed how fiendish the century would be! The Romanovs' murders were just one more - if spectacularly noticeable - instance of of the horrendous violence of "the Great War"  (as World War I was then called). That terribly pointless conflict, which Pope Benedict XV famously called the "suicide of civilization," brought to a tragic end the progressive trajectory on which Western civilization had been so widely thought until then to have been headed. (It was no accident that Karl Barth came out with his first edition of The Epistle to the Romans in 1918.)

As for the crime itself, historians continue to argue about whether or not it could have been prevented, whether or not this or that European monarch could have somehow saved his relatives.  Certainly several such efforts were made. Personally, I have long wondered why Kaiser Wilhelm II did not demand custody of the Romanovs in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In sheer power terms vis-a-vis the Soviet regime, he would seem to have been the best positioned at that particular moment to intervene on behalf of his relatives. (Intensely patriotic, the Romanovs probably would not have wanted to be rescued by their country's wartime enemy, and such a rescue might have further fueled the unjustified charge that the Empress was some sort of German agent.)

Considering the whole question afresh, Helen Rappaport's new book, The Race to Save the Romanovs: The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue the Russian Imperial Family (St. Martin's Press, 2018), suggests that "the bitter truth is that there was one - and only one - real window of opportunity for escape and that was before Nicholas abdicated on March 15, 1917." She argues that, if "Alexandra had acted quickly and decisively and had got her children out to safety immediately after the revolution had broken in Petrograd," then there might have been a chance - at least for them. One theme of her book seems to be that whatever inquiries were made and whatever offers of asylum were implied, it was probably already always too late. In the end, she cites Boris Yeltsin 1998 statement calling the murders "one of the most shameful episodes" in Russia's history and declaring: "We are all guilty."

There is now a church on the site of the murders, and the murdered Emperor and his family are now venerated by the Russian Orthodox Church as martyrs. The 20th century turned out to be a century of martyrs - more martyrs than in any previous century of Christian history. That in itself is quite a commentary on our time.

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