Most people know Cardinal Richelieu as the architect of France’s foreign policy during the reign of Louis XIII and the Thirty Years’ War. Less well-known is his right-hand man, Father Joseph du Tremblay, the subject of Aldous Huxley’s biography Grey Eminence, which has been called the “best book on the intelligence operations of the French state” of that period.
Father Joseph was a Capuchin monk, and even before entering politics, a serious mystic, whose successful evangelism seemed merely to take time from his efforts to achieve union with the Godhead. His piety was not a pose; he would continue to honor his vow of poverty to the point of rigorous self-denial, right to the end of his life. In their personal lives, Richelieu lived in luxury, while Joseph lived the Church teachings.
The question that fascinates Huxley is how a fellow mystic, so loyal to the Church and its divine mission, could devote his public life to the perpetuation of what amounted to a war of extermination in Germany. It was a question that Fr. Joseph’s contemporaries asked, and one that marred his reputation almost from the time he took office. It would follow him even to his funeral.
To fully understand what’s at stake, one needs to understand the position that the Thirty Years’ War holds in German history. The war’s destructiveness was unmatched for its time, killing about half the German population, reducing the rest to utter poverty and starvation. Armies, foreign and domestic, pillaged what food their was, and destroyed urban production.
It was the conscious policy of France – both Richelieu and Joseph – to extend it as long as possible, precisely to inflict this damage on France’s most dangerous continental rival.
For Richelieu, the motivation is easy to see. But when Father Joseph took a position as Richelieu’s right-hand diplomat, the motivations were a little more subtle. Joseph identified France’s interests with God’s. He seems to have truly believed that a strong France would advance the Church’s interests in the world. More than anything, he wanted another Crusade against the Turks, to recover Constantinople and the Holy Land. (Constantinople had only been Ottoman for about 150 years; Christian rule there wasn’t a living memory, but it also wasn’t terribly distant, and much if not most of the city’s population remained Orthodox.)
Spain had actually expressed interest in the enterprise, but wanted overall leadership. To Joseph, anything other than French leadership was unimaginable. In order to accomplish a French-led Crusade, France would not only have to turn Germany into a highway for Catholic troops, it would also have to break the power of the encircling Hapsburgs, who sat on the thrones of both Spain and Austria. Thus France’s support for the Dutch resistance to Spanish rule, and the strategic support of the Lutheran Swedes against the Austrians, using Germany as their battlefield. Catholic France’s support for Protestant armies against other Catholic powers only fed the cynicism about its motives.
That such cynicism existed at all was a result of the mixture of religious and political roles, and of religious and nationalistic motives. The Peace of Westphalia has been seen as establishing a secular international order. But such an order was only possible because governments – even diplomats who had Church titles – had been pursuing a nationalistic foreign policy for decades beforehand. Only such a worldview can explain France’s actively promoting German bloodshed almost as an end unto itself, and delaying a crusade until France could lead it.
David Goldman, a.k.a. Spengler, flatly states that our position with respect to the Muslim world is roughly that of France of the early 1600s to the rest of Europe. Still the main power to be reckoned with, we should pattern our Middle East policy on France’s: divide and weaken, intervening only directly when absolutely necessary. And just as France became the dominant European land power for over 200 years after the War, so we can manipulate the Sunni-Shia divide to our advantage.
And yet, Huxley, in a somewhat mystical moment, notes simply that violent actions rarely if ever have salutary results. Germany remembered. Germany rose to challenge France, and Germany never really forgot the horrors that French diplomacy had visited upon it. It was a vengeance that was fueled by a moral indignation, as well, that France had posed as a religiously-motivated power, even as it reduced Germany to cannibalism.
Huxley answers his central question by concluding that Father Joseph simply bargained away, piece by piece, the practical tenets of his mystical faith in pursuit of his more concrete policy goals. At a personal level, his extreme piety convinced him that God would forgive whatever compromises he had to make to ensure France’s success.
We too have our ideals, that such a purely realpolitik foreign policy would betray. And years down the line, some future Huxley might also find that, in pursuit of national interests, we had, little by little, allowed ourselves to completely bargain them away.