ADELAIDE - In the very funny television series ‘Blackadder’ the eponymous protagonist, played by the hugely talented Rowan Atkinson, has a manservant called Baldrick, played by prominent actor and historian Sir Tony Robinson.
Blackadder is constantly scheming to find ways to enhance his status, wealth or power, usually at the expense of others. In doing so he is assisted or mostly hindered by a cast of characters who manage to manifest the very worst qualities of Britain’s former aristocratic ruling elite.
A running joke throughout the series is that the exceedingly dim Baldrick often tries to help his master achieve his devious ends by devising “cunning plans”. These plans are invariably stupid and destined to fail but Baldrick is always disappointed when Blackadder points out their obvious flaws.
One of the important reasons the series resonates so powerfully with anyone familiar with history is because many of the scenarios it depicts echo the ambitions, attitudes and behaviours of real historic figures.
The sad truth is that there is a long and lamentable history amongst people in power of formulating and implementing cunning plans that have gone hideously wrong.
It seems that the historic equivalents of Baldrick have, at times, been all too persuasive in convincing self interested and gullible rulers to pursue policies that can only have destructive and ruinous outcomes.
Let me relate three examples from history that nicely illustrate this.
First, in 44BC a group of Roman Senators, calling themselves liberators, conspired to assassinate Gaius Julius Caesar, who had recently been appointed dictator for life by the Roman Senate.
Caesar was by then the wealthiest and most popular figure in Rome, having consciously positioned himself as the champion of ordinary Roman citizens and curtailed the power and influence of the Senate, which was composed exclusively of self appointed wealthy elite.
Caesar was a truly ambitious and ruthless figure but his rise to power was greatly aided by the determination of the Senate to preserve its prestige, power and authority, even at the expense of the ordinary citizenry.
The liberators’ cunning plan was to kill Caesar and then proclaim the restoration of true republican rule, with the Senate restored to its place as the seat of power. They assumed that this would enjoy the support of the majority of their fellow senators and the Roman population more broadly. Both of these assumptions proved to be badly wrong.
Far from restoring the republic, the assassination of Caesar unleashed a lengthy civil war during which huge numbers of Romans would be killed and vast amounts of wealth squandered in the struggle for power.
At length, it was Caesar’s nephew and adopted son, Gaius Octavius Caesar, who emerged victorious. While he re-established the forms of the republic, he forced the Senate to accord him the titles of First Citizen and, eventually, Imperator, thus becoming the first of the Emperors who ruled Rome and its empire over the next 400 years.
Thus the so-called liberators brought about the utter destruction of the republic they had planned to restore, their cunning plan having spectacularly back fired.
Ferdinand the Second
Another example of hideous miscalculation was the Thirty Years War which consumed most of central and northern Europe between 1618 and 1648.
The stimulus for the war came from the newly crowned Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand the Second. He was a fervent Catholic and was determined to stamp out the Protestant heresy (mainly Lutheranism and Calvinism) that had taken root in much of northern Europe. With this object in mind he decided to use military force to reimpose Catholicism across his entire empire.
This plan enjoyed some support amongst the more rabidly Catholic extremists but there was a good deal of opposition as well. Many of Ferdinand’s subordinate rulers warned him that his plan was likely to lead to open warfare but he wrongly believed that his armies would be more than sufficient to crush any resistance.
Undeterred, and certain as to the righteousness of his cause, Ferdinand unleashed his army upon those who resisted his demands that they convert to Catholicism. In doing so he unleashed one of the most protracted and destructive civil wars in European history, whose echoes are still heard today.
Thirty long and dreadful years of warfare ensued. Massacres and atrocities were common as the warring parties fought back and forth over an increasingly despoiled and depopulated central Europe. In the end, at least eight million or 30% of the population of the Holy Roman Empire was killed or died of starvation and many more were reduced to dire poverty. It was a catastrophe of unprecedented scale.
Eventually, the war subsided into a smoldering stalemate. A peace was negotiated in which the status quo of 1618 was recognised. In short, 30 years of suffering achieved precisely nothing for Ferdinand other than utterly impoverishing his empire and dramatically reducing its power and influence. The Catholic Church never really recovered its influence and is still regarded with undisguised suspicion by German and Scandinavian Protestants to this day.
Kaiser Wilhelm the Second
The third example is the First World War, the trigger for which was the assassination on 28 June 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The assassin was a lone Serbian terrorist, who was a member of the ultranationalist Black Hand movement.
There was little support for this group within Serbia but this did not prevent the German Emperor from urging his Austro-Hungarian ally to make demands of Serbia calculated to ensure that war would break out.
Kaiser Wilhelm the Second of Germany was a man of limited intelligence and insight but boundless ambition. His cunning plan was to support Austro-Hungary to take over Serbia, as part of the maneuverings associated with attempts by several European empires to fill the power vacuum being created by the slow but remorseless decline of the Ottoman Empire based in Constantinople (now Istanbul).
Wilhelm believed that Germany’s army was the most powerful in Europe and that, if push came to shove, it could defeat both the large but sclerotic Russian military (which was allied to Serbia) as well as that of Russia’s ally, France. His generals were very concerned about fighting a war on two fronts and tried to dissuade him from risking doing so, but Wilhelm’s ambition and hubris made him over confident and he rejected their advice.
His second major miscalculation was to assume that Britain, whose King, George the Fifth, was his cousin, would not intervene in the ensuing war. After all, none of its vital interests were being threatened, so why would it come to the aid of a small and remote country like Serbia?
The third huge miscalculation was that, based upon the experience of two previous wars with Austria and France, in 1866 and 1870 respectively, any war would be over within a very short time frame of no more than a few weeks. Seldom has there been a more grievously erroneous assumption than this.
The likely nature of a genuinely industrial scale war had been demonstrated all too graphically by the American Civil War (1861-1865), yet Wilhelm and many others persisted in believing that such a war could not and would not occur in Europe.
The end result of the ensuing catastrophe was the death of at least 16 million soldiers and civilians and the destruction of the Ottoman, German and Russian imperial regimes. In addition, the British and French empires were gravely weakened by the conflict, with the true extent of this being revealed during World War II.
There are, of course, many more examples of cunning plans. It seems that people in positions of power and authority are frequently deceived into believing that they possess a special insight not accorded to others. Often, initial success reinforces this belief and they are left extremely vulnerable to the shocks and unexpected developments that arise when those in power overreach themselves.
The relevance of this to the modern world ought to be apparent. We now live in an era when our political leaders have little knowledge and experience of just how badly things can go wrong when ambition and hubris, combined with ignorance and bad judgement, leads to gross political miscalculation.
We have a United States president who is, I think, dangerously ignorant and so utterly convinced of his special powers of insight that the likelihood of a gross miscalculation is very great. Quite when and in what form such a miscalculation will occur (if it hasn’t already) cannot be predicted, but its inevitability seems assured.
Papua New Guinea is particularly vulnerable to this problem. Its leadership has demonstrated ignorance, incompetence and corruption many times and has been greatly emboldened by the lack of significant legal or electoral consequences for this behaviour.
It has used or, more accurately, misused the law numerous times to thwart efforts to bring the corrupt to justice.
It has flouted parliamentary conventions when it found them inconvenient.
It has persecuted its critics, or those it merely dislikes, by misusing its administrative and regulatory powers.
It has made poor financial and economic decisions in the face of clear evidence and advice of the grave risks inherent in doing so and then denied responsibility for those decisions when they went wrong or, worse still, attempted to cover up the fact that anything adverse had occurred.
It has set up expectations that it will not accept the results of next June’s referendum on Bougainville’s independence.
In short, it is government where the good people within it are unable to control or restrain those for whom lies, evasion, maladministration and corruption are merely tools of trade to achieve political power or personal gain.
Of course, this behaviour is hardly limited to PNG as Australia’s current Royal Commission into the banking industry, as well as numerous cases of political malfeasance brought to light by the various commissions against corruption, vividly attest.
The difference is the scale and openness with which such behaviour is being witnessed in PNG.
A government like PNG’s is inevitably going to make disastrous decisions of the type I have described. The consequences of these decisions seem unlikely to result in warfare although they may well do so in places like Bougainville. However, these decisions will certainly have profound economic and social consequences, some of which are slowly becoming apparent already.
Unless good people in PNG can somehow seize control of the situation, I can foresee no good outcome for the country as a whole.
It would be tragic indeed if PNG were to suffer the same miserable fate that has befallen so many supposedly more civilized and advanced nations in the past simply because the obvious lessons of history are ignored.