Category Archives: History

The Munster Millenarians: Anabaptism and the Radical Reformation

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 21 February 2021

Execution of Jan Beuckelszoon // Illustration in a book by Lambertus Hortensius

In 1534, shortly after the onset of the Protestant Reformation, a radical sect from this new movement, the Anabaptists, seized the city of Munster in Germany and governed it for sixteen months as a millenarian cult in a manner so alarming it managed to bring together Catholic and Lutheran forces to put it down. The experience had a profound influence not on the development of Anabaptism thereafter, but on the manner in which the Reformation more generally unfolded. Continue reading

The Confrontation that Began the Protestant Reformation

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 28 January 2021

“Luther at the Diet at Worms”, by Anton von Werner, 1877

The Diet of Worms convened 500 years ago today.[1] Four years earlier, Martin Luther had sent his Ninety-five Theses as part of a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz, Albert of Brandenburg. The date on which Luther sent this letter, 31 October 1517, is now celebrated as “Reformation Day”, but the Reformation in a serious sense did not begin until after Luther was summoned before the 1521 Diet of Worms. Continue reading

Crusader Whodunnit: The Curious Case of Conrad of Montferrat

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 9 August 2020

Conrad of Montferrat … imagined. Picture is from the Paris of the 1840s, by François-Édouard Picot.

Conrad of Montferrat, the monarch of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, one of the four Crusader principalities, was assassinated in Acre on 28 April 1192 by the Nizari Ismailis, the legendary Assassins. The event received a lot of interest in its own time and since in the Christian world—and fuelled the various myths about the Nizaris either being focused on the Crusaders (the Nizaris’ war was always with the Sunni order) or operating in Europe (which they never did). There has also long been speculation about a third party having sponsored the Nizaris, and a paper by Patrick A. Williams examines this issue. Continue reading

The Soviets’ Bagman in Britain

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 22 February 2020

Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist–Leninist) (CPGB-ML) carrying banners and Stalin postsers at a May Day parade // May 2016

Jeremy Corbyn has been dogged throughout his time as leader of the British Labour Party by his associates. Having Seumas Milne, a believing Stalinist and general conspiracy theorist, as his spin-doctor and primary strategist is actually among the least disgraceful things about Corbyn. Corbyn was, despite later attempts at obfuscation, a vocal supporter of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA). Corbyn was paid £20,000 for pro-Iranian propaganda by the clerical regime. He laid a wreath honouring Black September, the deniable unit of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) responsible inter alia for the mutilation and murder of Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972. Then there was Fidel Castro, HAMAS, Hizballah, and on and on.

Thus, when it was revealed, two years ago this month, that Corbyn supplied political and other intelligence to the secret police of Communist Czechoslovakia, it was unsurprising. Corbyn was known to have supported the Soviet side in the Cold War, from Castro’s Cuba to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua; had he known of Soviet support to PIRA, it would not have turned him against them. So, it was all taken very much in stride. Putting aside the lament that it should have been a bigger scandal that the Leader of the Opposition was once an “operational contact” for the Soviet Bloc, it was an interesting look at how the Soviet Union, through its satellite states, sought to cultivate sympathisers and exert influence in Britain—and how little is known, even now, about the scale and success of such things.

Somebody who could have shed more light on this was Reuben Falber, a senior official of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and its key liaison with the KGB. When he died on 29 April 2006, he took most of his secrets with him. Still, what is known of Falber’s career gives some insight and such insights are by no means all retrospective. Continue reading

The PKK and Russia

By Oved Lobel on 18 November 2019

PKK at a terrorist training camp in the Asad regime-held Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, 1991 [source]

My friend Oved Lobel, a researcher focused on Russia’s role in the Middle East (among other things), found several interviews the Russian media did with Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leaders, one with the leader himself Abdullah Ocalan, talking about, inter alia, the group’s relationship with Moscow. He very helpfully translated them and with his permission they are published below.

The broad outline of the PKK’s relationship with the Soviet Union—and then the Russian Federation—is fairly clear. After the PKK was founded in Turkey in the late 1970s by Ocalan, it was evicted from the country during the 1980 military coup. The PKK moved to Syria, where Ocalan was already based, having fled Turkey in June 1979. From there, the PKK moved into the Bekaa area of Lebanon, at that time controlled by the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Asad, and the Soviets acted through Asad, as they so often did in dealing with terrorist groups, to build the PKK into a fighting force that was then unleashed in 1984 on Turkey, a frontline NATO state in the Cold War. Continue reading

The Shah, the Cold War, and the Islamists

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 20 March 2019

Abbas Milani’s The Shah gives a portrait of Iran’s last monarch, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, and the impact that his downfall forty years ago continues to have in the Middle East, notably the emboldening of the Islamist movement. Continue reading

The Establishment of the Qajar Dynasty in Iran

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 28 February 2019

Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar, founder of the Qajar dynasty (1794-1925) in Iran [source]

Gavin R.G. Hambly, a Middle East scholar and historian, wrote a paper in 1963 about the establishment of the Qajar dynasty, the second-to-last ruling House in Iran, and particularly about its first monarch, Agha Mohammad Khan. The paper is slightly revisionist about Agha Mohammad, countering the long-standing reputation of him as solely a ruthless despot. The Qajars, for all their faults, prevented the outright colonisation of Iran in the nineteenth century, and imposed an order that held the country together, albeit while losing tracts of territory on the periphery—the Caucasus and Turkmenistan to the Russians in the north, and areas in the east to the British, notably Herat, which was annexed to Afghanistan, and parts of Baluchistan and Sistan to what would later become Pakistan. This resilience of the Iranian state is largely ascribable to Agha Mohammad, argues Hambly, who showed a sense of public spirit he is rarely credited with in consciously making the lives of ordinary Iranians better. Continue reading

The Fall of the Shah and the Rise of Islamism

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 17 January 2019

Forty years ago yesterday, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah (King) of Iran, left his country for the last time as a year-long revolution crested. A month later, the remnants of the Imperial Government collapsed and Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was swept to power after his long exile, establishing the first Islamist regime. Andrew Scott Cooper’s 2016 book, The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran, charts how this happened. Continue reading

Obituary: Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) Duvalier

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on October 6, 2014

Jean-Claude Duvalier in 2011

Jean-Claude Duvalier in 2011

It might have come as a shock to some that a dictator who took power in 1971 and was deposed in 1986 was even still alive, but such is the case with Jean-Claude Duvalier, who died on Saturday. The fact that Duvalier took power in Haiti at the age of 19 was only the least of the weirdness of the dynasty established by his father, Francois, who had been a medical doctor and fashioned himself “Papa Doc” in official propaganda (an honorific passed to Jean-Claude in the succession, hence “Baby Doc”). Continue reading