Weil es ja schon einige Male so schön geklappt hat: Vielleicht recherchiert dort draußen irgendein Verwandter, Bekannter, Nachlaßverwalter oder sonstwie Involvierter über Prof. Heinrich Franke (1887-1966), Wissenschaftler, Politiker, Ehrenbürger der Stadt Erlangen und Humanist. Enkel eines Köstlin, vermutlich Christian Reinhold, und damit Neffe von Richard Albert Fellinger (Siemens). Falls dem so ist, melden Sie sich doch bitte bei mir – ich bin derzeit auf der Spur dieses interessanten Mannes.

‘That strange Englishman’ – Dagobert von Mikusch, T. E. Lawrence’s first German translator

(A proposed paper for the Journal of the T. E. Lawrence Society)

Dagobert von Mikusch-Buchberg(1) (1874-1950) was an officer in the German and Ottoman army who later turned to writing and translating. In this latter role, he translated Revolt in the Desert and Seven Pillars of Wisdom into German (published 1927 and 1935, respectively). Mikusch’s name had been familiar to me from that work alone for many years before he emerged as a possible recipient of one of Lawrence’s letters. Searching for anything to either prove or disprove this theory, I found myself becoming interested in Mikusch’s life instead. Very little has been written about him, although he is mentioned and quoted repeatedly, mostly in connection with his bestselling biography of Mustafa Kemal ‘Atatürk’ or his (Mikusch’s) supposed Nazi sympathies.
The latter can only be speculated on, since the whereabouts of Mikusch’s literary estate and personal papers are unknown; sadly, any living descendants and relatives that I managed to trace refused contact. As far as I was able to determine, there is no collection of his papers at any public archive, although two of his letters are kept at the Literaturarchiv Marbach, one of them by a great stroke of luck dealing with Lawrence and Seven Pillars. Mikusch’s Berlin flat was bombed in 1944 and his library destroyed, so it can be assumed that most of his papers up to that point did not survive. No photos of him were to be found, and his grave was levelled in 1993.(2)

This article will examine Mikusch’s life as well his work on Seven Pillars and how his experiences in Mesopotamia during the First World War paralleled or contrasted Lawrence’s own.

Lawrence’s post-war correspondence with a German officer

As mentioned before, my interest in Mikusch began rather accidentally when I came across an article in the Austrian newspaper Österreichischer Beobachter of August 1942 that quoted a letter of Lawrence’s from ‘early 1934’ to ‘a German officer’:

Der letzte Krieg war, soweit es mich betrifft, eine unvermeidliche, aber abscheuliche Angelegenheit. Ich spreche niemals mit jemand über meine Rolle darin, und ich will auch gar nichts über ihn lesen oder über den Vorderen Orient, damals, oder vorher, oder seitdem. Nichts könnte mich dazu bringen, mir die Jahre 1914 bis 1918 wieder ins Gedächtnis zu rufen. Sie waren ein Alpdruck, und ich bedaure sehr, daß ich gezwungen war, jene Rolle zu spielen, die mir zufiel.(3)

As the article is brimming with conspiracy theories (it had been proven ‘without a doubt’ that the British Secret Service had poisoned Feisal in Geneva, for example, or that Lawrence had planned to hand over the written promises of the British government to ‘Arab freedom fighters’ two days after his death – the papers were never found…), the first impulse is to dismiss the quoted letter as a fake, especially since no further information is given as to its recipient or the context of their correspondence, and since I had never seen it quoted anywhere else. Yet even in translation the letter’s tone and wording sound authentic. Via Google Books, I was able to trace it back to Reinhard Hüber’s Es wetterleuchtet zwischen Nil und Tigris (1940) where it is quoted more extensively:

Der letzte Krieg war, soweit es mich betrifft, eine unvermeidliche, aber abscheuliche Angelegenheit, welche meinen Beruf unterbrach und mich ohne Mittel, Aussichten oder Streben ließ. Ich spreche niemals mit irgend jemand über meine Rolle darin; und ich will auch gar nichts über ihn lesen oder über den Vorderen Orient, damals, oder vorher, oder seitdem … Nichts könnte mich dazu bringen, mir die Jahre 1914-18 wieder ins Gedächtnis zu rufen. Sie waren ein Alpdruck, und ich bedauere sehr, daß ich gezwungen war, jene Rolle zu spielen, die mir zufiel … Nach 30 Jahren wird das alles nichts mehr ausmachen. Dann werden wir alle tot sein, hoffe ich.(4)

Translated back into English, it reads something like:

The last war was, as far as I am concerned, an inevitable but repulsive affair which interrupted my work and left me without means, prospects or aspirations. I never discuss my part in it with anyone; and I don’t want to read anything about it, or about the Near East, then, or before, or since … Nothing could make me recall the years 1914-18. They were a nightmare, and I very much regret that I was forced to play the part that fell to me … After 30 years none of this will matter anymore. Then we will all be dead, I hope.

Its addressee is given by Hüber as a ‘German Asia fighter’ (Asienkämpfer, presumably a former member of ‘Yildirim’ or the Asia Corps); no further reference is included.
An article by Neil Tweedie in The Telegraph quotes what might be related correspondence:

When a German officer tried to engage [Lawrence] in correspondence about the war in Arabia, he wrote to the Air Ministry saying: „I had hoped that the writer would have realised [by my failure to reply] that this proposal did not appeal to me. I do not discuss my part in the war with anyone, nor do I read about it: the whole subject is repulsive.“(5)

Again, no reference is given, so it remains unclear whether it was the same German officer that Lawrence replied to.
Reinhard Hüber (1905-1959) was one of the leading lobbyists for German economic interests in the Near and Middle East before, during and after the Second World War, as well as the author of several books on the region. It stands to reason, therefore, that Lawrence’s letter was addressed to one of Hüber’s acquaintances. Hüber was also involved in the periodical Mitteilungen des Bundes der Asienkämpfer (later: Orient-Rundschau), the leading platform for former members of German and Austrian military missions in the Near and Middle East. Dagobert von Mikusch, as it turned out, also wrote for the Orient-Rundschau, and both men lived in Berlin at roughly the same time. During the First World War, Mikusch had served as a major with the Ottoman army but returned to Germany in 1917 to act as a liaison officer with the newly founded Yildirim Army Group. It was this connection that triggered my research into Mikusch’s life and career.

Prussian officer, aesthete, witness to the Armenian genocide: The changing roles of Dagobert von Mikusch from 1874 to 1917

Mikusch’s father, also named Dagobert (1845-?), was the youngest of three brothers born to Wilhelm Eduard Melzer and his wife Emilie, née von Mellenthin. When Emilie divorced her husband and married Wilhelm Franz Mikusch von Buchberg in 1857, her sons were adopted by Mikusch, apparently while their father was still alive, a quite unusual arrangement especially for the time, so there is probably more to the story. In 1869, the three brothers, all of them officers in the Prussian army, were ennobled under the name of ‘von Mikusch-Buchberg’. The eldest brother, Viktor, eventually rose to the rank of general.
Dagobert senior married Adelheid Engert, and on 11 November 1874, Dagobert junior was born in Kleve where his father seems to have been stationed as part of the newly established garrison. Young Mikusch continued the family’s military tradition, receiving an eight-year-long training at the cadet schools in Wahlstatt and Lichterfelde before joining the Fusilier Regiment 73 (Hanover) in 1894. From 1900 to 1903 he attended the academy in Berlin and was then appointed to the Great General Staff. His successful career came to an end in 1906 when he went blind on one eye.(6) The ‘retired first lieutenant’ (as the street directory lists him), now aged 31, enrolled at the University of Heidelberg to study law, history and philosophy.(7) He had married the Austrian-Silesian pianist and composer Margarete Latzel (1881-1968), a student of Max Reger, in 1904. In 1907, their first son Michael was born, 1908 their second son Donatus (‘Mischa’ and ‘Donat’; both would live to the ripe old age of 104 and 99, respectively). Donat von Mikusch relates in his autobiography the curious circumstances of his birth: Because the midwife refused to work at the low bed of his parents as she feared it would give her a back complaint, Dagobert propped the bed up on eight volumes of the popular and voluminous encyclopaedia Meyers Conversations-Lexikon!(8)
In 1909, the family moved to Munich, considered by many to be Germany’s cultural capital, where their home soon became a popular meeting place of artists and intellectuals.(9) In 1913, Mikusch signed a note of protest against a defamatory review of a Kandinsky exhibition in Hamburg.(10)

Margarete von Mikusch

With the outbreak of the First World War, Mikusch again entered active service. He was not called up because of his partial blindness, so he volunteered and was first sent to France, then to the Ukraine and finally, in the spring of 1915, was attached to the Ottoman army as chief of staff of the Etappeninspektion at Aleppo(11) with the rank of major. The common practice for German officers entering the Turkish armed forces as part of the German military mission that was agreed upon with the Ottoman Empire in 1913 was to be given a rank one grade higher than the one they held in the German army.(12) They reversed to their original rank upon leaving Ottoman service. Since Mikusch continued to be listed as retired first lieutenant in the Munich street directory until the 1926 edition stated ‘retired captain’(13), and since a peacetime promotion for a retired officer seems highly unlikely, Mikusch was probably promoted to captain upon re-entering active service, and the family simply forgot to update their entry in the street directory. In October 1917 at least, Mikusch, stationed by then in Berlin, held the rank of captain.(14)

Probably at Max Reger’s instigation, Mikusch requested the composer Hermann Unger (1886-1958), a fellow student of Margarete’s, to be transferred to Aleppo as his adjutant, thereby freeing him from the Western Front and possibly saving his life.(15) Unger would later dedicate his suite Bilder aus dem Orient to Mikusch, ‘for remembrance of the days of Aleppo’.(16) The two men met at Pozantı for the first time, despite Mikusch’s ‘brazen’ lie to the powers-that-be that he and Unger had worked together at Valenciennes.(17)
Aleppo proved to be challenging in more ways than one. To begin with, the local German colony was divided into two camps, as Hermann Unger recalled:

If you paid the consul a call, you would not be invited to Mrs Koch, a rich lady and former host of the Kaiser during his visit to Palestine.(18)

Tellingly, Mikusch paid frequent visits to the German consul in Aleppo, Walter Rößler (1871-1929), who would campaign tirelessly to protect the Armenian people; a goal that, ironically, he shared with Martha Koch.(19) Mikusch and Rößler both came from a solid Prussian background and had many common interests, mainly the arts and philosophy. In later years, Rößler’s widow (along with the widow of Wilhelm Waßmuß) would be part of the Mikuschs’ circle of friends.
Unger continued:

[The] crowds in the streets were […] strangely appealing, especially in the evenings when the ‘ladies’ of the amusement districts came to the boulevard in horse-drawn cabs, brightly coloured paper flowers in the lanterns, or when the police hunted conscripts in the streets because once again they had not been paid their monthly salary and were looking for some ‘extra income’ from the tips of those shirkers they caught. At this, I recall an experience: my German boss was on an official trip. The Turkish Pasha General summoned me instead of him and suggested to me, among other things, that we should be paid ‘brokerage fees’ for a large delivery of bread, only to try to appease me at my strict refusal with the classic words: ‘Be reasonable. I speak to you as a father speaks to a son.’ As a disobedient son, I reported the matter to Enver Pasha in Constantinople who dismissed the pasha without further ado.
During an official trip to the Euphrates at Jerablus a swarm of locusts assailed me: dark, dense clouds of these animals, whose impact on my topee sounded like a crackling hailstorm. […]
During a trip to Baalbek I was able to admire the enormous ruins of the sun temple from late Roman times, columns whose individual drums were the size of a house. Unfortunately, during his visit to these sights, our Kaiser had a ‘commemorative plaque’ in the form of a notice board installed at floor level, thus disfiguring the whole picture(20), just as he had ‘donated’ a fountain house in Stambul, i.e. the old Turkish half of Constantinople, an imitation in an atrocious Art Nouveau style.
At that time, the persecutions of the Armenians by the Turks began, who used the war to rid themselves of these denizens who were religiously foreign to them and economically […] inconvenient. The method was Asian radical: Armenian villages were attacked by the Kurds, predatory mountain tribes incited by the Turks, all men were killed, the women carried off. Once the adjutant of the Pasha offered us young, beautiful Armenian women to ‘buy’ for a mecidiye, i.e. 5 Marks [about 15-20 Euros], apiece! At one time, I rode out of town with my boss, Major von Mikusch, and for miles the road was lined by the bones of Armenians who had been ‘transported’ back and forth until they had died of hunger or typhus.(21)

The arrest, deportation, and massacres of Armenians began in April 1915, and increasingly, Aleppo became one of the hubs of deportations. By the end of 1915, half a million Armenians were situated in the Aleppo – Damascus – Euphrates triangle.(22)

“Major von Mikusch has returned from Mosul and reports the following:
about a week ago, Kurds massacred Armenians in Tell Ermen and a neighbouring Armenian village. The large churches have been destroyed. Mr. von Mikusch personally saw 200 bodies. The militia and gendarmes have at least tolerated the massacre and have probably taken part in it.
Replacements (released prisoners) including their officer have spoken happily of massacres between Nisibin and Tell Ermen and have completely plundered an Armenian village, the inhabitants of which were massacred.
In Djarabulus, corpses, often bound together, drifted down the Euphrates River.”(23)

Major von Mikusch took photographs of the findings and is in a position to submit them.(24)

Neither the German nor the Austrian-Hungarian press were allowed (or willing?) to report objectively on the atrocities. Whenever newspapers in 1915 did report on executions of Armenians, they presented them as isolated cases of either spies or rebels incited by Russian agitators – the official Turkish version of events. Others mentioned ‘alleged’ massacres but attributed them to British rumour-mongers or indeed to what we today call fake news. That both German and Austrian-Hungarian authorities knew better is well documented.
On 10 April 1916, Consul Walter Rößler reported to the embassy in Constantinople:

Deportations are in full swing. Yesterday, for example, 200 to 300 people were deported, among them the families of soldiers. Accommodation was ordered for the latter in nearby villages. But all of them were marched off to Derel-Zor in March. They were not allowed to take anything with them, so they must starve. […]
Yesterday, the Wali explained to Major v. Mikusch that he had strict orders to deport the Armenians.(25)

In his introduction to the German edition of Revolt in the Desert, Mikusch pointed out the apparent powerlessness of the German armed forces and German politicians in the ‘Armenian question’ as well as in the Arab revolt:

Turkey regarded this uprising [of the Arabs] purely as a matter of their country, and their national sensitivities did not tolerate the slightest interference in their domestic affairs, as had already been seen in the Armenian question.(26)

Conveniently, he left out the criminal indifference of leading German politicians with regard to the suffering of the Armenian people, something he cannot have been unaware of, even if only through his acquaintance with Rößler. Mikusch’s own position to the ‘Armenian question’ remains unclear. As a military man, he travelled frequently in the hinterland and consequently witnessed many atrocities. He could have ignored them, but instead he photographed and reported what he saw to Rößler, either in an official capacity or during one of their private meetings. On 28 February 1916, he was present at a meeting with Rößler, chief engineer Winkler of the Baghdad Railway, and Colonel Böttrich of the Turkish General Staff – a fateful meeting in retrospective, as it seems Böttrich would not be swayed on behalf of the Armenians. While Winkler fought determinedly for months for the Armenian workers at the railway, Böttrich actively organised the deportation of all Armenian employees of the railway.(27) In May 1916, Mikusch helped Rößler via his army contacts to protect Ernst Christoffel, director of an orphanage for Armenian children, from Turkish authorities.(28) And apparently, there exists a telegram in Turkish archives complaining about Mikusch’s non-compliance in the Armenian question.(29) But there is no record of him trying to intervene directly on behalf of the Armenians, nor is there any record of him taking direct action against them like his colleague Major Wolffskeel at Urfa. Whatever his personal feelings in this matter, fourteen years after the fact Mikusch would claim in his biography of Mustafa Kemal with a certain cynicism:

If we abstract from the human aspect, the exclusion of the Armenians from the body of their state was no less a constraining necessity than […] was the extermination of the Indians for the new state of the white people in America.(30)

It should not be ignored that a false rumour of Rößler’s involvement in the Armenian massacres kept circulating especially in the USA. Although Mikusch simply gave the gist of what the German press made of the genocide at the time, it could also be seen as him taking a swipe at potential American critics. Nevertheless, Mikusch’s attitude seems to have changed from him being at least a witness to the atrocities, if not a downright ally of Rößler’s in trying to put a stop to them, to him being a defender of them. In this way of thinking, genocide was no longer the problem but the solution. But by writing so bluntly and by praising the crimes instead of denying them, Mikusch himself became an important contemporary witness to the genocide.
Undersecretary of state Zimmermann summed up the German government’s position on 29 September 1916:

All I can say is we’ve done everything we can. The utmost option left to us would be to break the alliance with Turkey. You will understand that we cannot take that course. More important to us than the Armenians, however much we lament their fate from a purely human point of view, are our sons and brothers who have to shed their precious blood in the hardest battles and who are dependent on the support of the Turks. For the Turks provide us with essential services to cover the southeastern flank.(31)

Realpolitik carried the day.
There is a curious, if tragic, connection between those events and Lawrence’s life. Because of the horrific sanitary conditions on the Armenian death marches and in the camp near Jarabulus, a typhus epidemic broke out and spread to the surrounding villages – quite possibly the same epidemic that killed Dahoum.

Undated. If photographed in 1915/16, there is a real chance that Mikusch is one of the men in front of the German Etappe at Aleppo.

Writer, translator, Nazi official, refugee: Mikusch’s life and career from 1917 to 1950

How little national feeling existed among the Arab greats in the first years of the war may perhaps be illustrated by the example of the head of the Shammar, with whom the translator has had several personal encounters. This powerful prince of one of the most warlike and most populous tribes in southern Mesopotamia changed his position, depending on whether the influx of money came from the Turkish-German or English side (from Basra). If one had been received at one time with all honours of hospitality and the assurance of further support, it could happen that one was ambushed at his behest the next time entering his territory,(32)

wrote Mikusch in his introduction to Aufstand in der Wüste [Revolt in the Desert]. It is interesting to note that this estimation of Ibn Rashid, universally described as pro-Turk, matches Lawrence’s own when he judges the Shammar sheik to be half-hearted in his alliance with the Turks.(33)

Dagobert von Mikusch returned to Germany in 1917 to act as liaison officer with the newly founded Yildirim Army Group.(34) At around that time, his mother Adelheid moved to Munich, so it is likely that Dagobert senior had passed away. There is no record of Mikusch’s activities from the time he rejoined his family after the war to his move to Berlin in 1930.(35) Faithful family chronicler Donat von Mikusch only relates that their Munich flat had become too large after the changes wrought by the war, when for financial reasons as well as because of technological advances there was no longer any need for live-in servants. Budding chemist Donat took advantage of the redundant space to build himself a laboratory, to the occasional terror of his parents and neighbours. In 1928, he began his chemistry studies in the USA, and his memoirs don’t mention his parents’ movements during his absence.
Mikusch wrote articles for the leading periodical of former Asia fighters, the Orient-Rundschau, but it was only in Berlin that he appears to have contemplated a writing career; he is listed as a writer in the Berlin street directories of 1932 and 1933. He would change that entry for the 1934 edition, tellingly after Hitler’s rise to power, using the far more prestigious title ‘retired major’.
His first documented work in the writing profession is the translation of Revolt in the Desert, praised as concise, tasteful and expressive.(36) He would return to T. E. Lawrence in 1935 and either translate Seven Pillars of Wisdom from scratch or rework his existing text, as the same passages differ in both translations.
In the meantime, he did both translation and original work, publishing biographies of Mustafa Kemal, Muhammad, Cecil Rhodes, Wilhelm Waßmuß, Franco and Ibn Sa’ud, and held radio lectures. His focus both on men from regions he knew so well and on the ‘strong leader’ type of character reveals a continued personal interest in the Near and Middle East as well as a longing for and admiration of a great, unifying leader, a feeling shared to devastating effect by a growing number of his countrymen. There is a reason why especially Mikusch’s Kemal biography was so successful, beyond the fascination with the exotic orient. Mikusch himself commented on it in the foreword of a 1936 reprint when Germany, in his words, finally had its own leader (Führer).(37)
The Rhodes biography, however, was not without its critics. The German translator of Basil Williams’ Cecil Rhodes, Dr Marielies Mauk, fought fiercely not only against what she saw as plagiarism on the part of Mikusch but also against what she condemned as cheap sensationalism and falsification for the sake of fame and money at the expense of quality research. Her extensive, detailed letters in Mikusch’s file at the Bundesarchiv Berlin-Lichterfelde on behalf of Williams’ work make for an interesting reading, although it appears this was a fight that she lost. Her translation was published as part of her book Südafrika, and there is no sign that any legal action against Mikusch was taken.
In September of 1936, Mikusch wrote to fellow author Alfred Haering in answer to a letter:

Your wish for ‘Sieben Säulen der Weisheit’ [Seven Pillars of Wisdom] I can fulfill, as I’ve seen that I just have one final proof copy at hand. I give it to you with pleasure, especially since I know how correctly you appreciate that strange Englishman. However, the illustrations are missing in the final proof […]. The complete work contains several things already known to you, as ‘Aufstand in der Wüste’ [Revolt in the Desert] is an excerpt of it.(38)

Publishing house Paul-List-Verlag, known for their high-quality books, had already released Revolt in the Desert in the translation and with an introduction by Dagobert von Mikusch in 1927; after Lawrence’s death they acquired the rights to Seven Pillars and again engaged Mikusch as translator. List’s ‘Copyright 1936’ edition of Die sieben Säulen der Weisheit has become legendary in its own right among German antiquarians and book collectors. Commonly known simply as ‘the bast binding edition’, it is a sumptuous translation not only of Lawrence’s text but also of his vision of his book. It features most of the portraits of the English 1935 edition and is, obviously, bound in a beautiful bast cover. There are, however, a few peculiarities that mark it firmly as a product of its time and place. Not only is it missing the dedication to ‘S.A.’, which could be explained by the difficulties of translating poetry (Mikusch also skipped the footnote to the muezzin’s call as an obviously untranslatable construct – I suspect Lawrence would have been amused), but also certain illustrations: in particular all works by William Roberts, Hogarth by Augustus John, Bartholomew by Colin Gill, and Kennington’s caricatures. There is no way to determine the reason for these omissions, but one can venture a guess. Autocracies of any kind are notoriously humourless; in fact, it is one of their identifying features. No doubt that is why Kennington’s satiric sketches were considered inappropriate for a ‘serious’ epic like Seven Pillars. Roberts’, John’s and Gill’s portraits, on the other hand, probably fell victim to the National Socialist brand of autocracy with its highly subjective prohibition of ‘degenerate art’ – in a nutshell, Roberts especially was too modern for publication in Nazi Germany.
Some time ago, I acquired a copy of the ‘1936’ edition of Sieben Säulen der Weisheit that still has its dust jacket; I had never come across one before, which doesn’t surprise as the dust jacket is very brittle by now. The blurb describes Seven Pillar’s publishing history and its themes in flowery words:

The book contains chapters in which the dreamer and doubter’s bitter wisdom has the word. It contains musings and insights of a noble and tormented mind. […] The theme is war, not wisdom; but the aim is insight, which Lawrence sometimes also calls freedom. War lives gruesomely on both sides, again and again insight falters and leads to the dead end of despair. The triumph of arms brings neither fulfilment nor solace, except perhaps in the dictum that can be read on the cover of the English [also the German, C.S.] edition between the two crossed swords: ‘The sword also means cleanness and death.’(39)

When originally purchased, my copy was gifted ‘to Rafael by Othmar and Erika for Christmas 1935’, according to its dedication. As this copy, contrary to others I have seen, does not state its print run, it appears to be part of the very first German printing and was actually published and sold before List’s copyright of 1936 strictly speaking began.
Today, List is part of the Ullstein group. In their short online timeline of the publishing house’s history, they proudly display Die sieben Säulen der Weisheit as one of their great successes.(40) They do not keep an archive, so unfortunately the complete publishing history of Sieben Säulen cannot be traced.
To return to Dagobert von Mikusch, he couldn’t resist a personal footnote in Chapter 15:

The author greatly overestimates the German resources. As is well-known, because of the blockade during the war Germany was that low on raw materials that sufficient material and equipment could barely be provided for her own armies. To additionally ‘enrich’ the Turkish armies ‘in equipment’ was plainly impossible, apart from the fact that the only available, very long railway link across the Balkans allowed only limited troop transport. Whatever material and technical resources Germany was able to provide the Turkish army with in those days was extremely little.(41)

He also explained in footnotes the use of some Arabic words, so apparently he had at least a rudimentary knowledge of the language.
Margarete von Mikusch’s letters to Hermann Unger from 1941 to 1950 make frequent mention of her husband whom she jokingly refers to as ‘Dada’, ‘the chief’, ‘our dear old pasha’ or ‘Mikusch Bey’. She mentions his short but recurrent bouts of ‘inexplicable’ high fever – most likely attacks of malaria. Aside from writing and translating, Mikusch travelled frequently, both for research and for the purpose of holding lectures. Probably in this context, the Viennese newspaper Neues Wiener Tagblatt reported in 1943 on a presentation Mikusch had given as part of the programme of the Südosteuropa-Gesellschaft on the topic of Turkey in the southeast European region. In November 1944, it makes mention of Mikusch’s 70th birthday. Connections to Vienna seem to have existed throughout as Mikusch even featured on a local radio broadcast on 4 December 1937. (Two days later, the programme lists a radio play on Lawrence by F. Leberecht, ‘Lawrence sprengt eine Brücke’ [Lawrence blows up a bridge].)(42)

Also in 1937, Mikusch’s name was put forward as volkskundlicher Prüfer for the examination office of law in Berlin(43) – the literal translation of this role would be ‘folkloristic examinant’, but in this context it has a strong völkisch connotation. It was a function for a part of the examination of law students that was specifically introduced in 1934, the so-called history test. It was different from the rest of the exam in that it did not involve any law-specific questions but was rather designed to test the examinants’ general education, namely their engagement with National Socialism and its ideology.
Author Martin Würfel assumes Mikusch’s appointment was due to his recommendation by the well-connected anti-Semite Johann von Leers (who would later convert to Islam) which might indeed have been the case, but being a former law student himself would also not have gone amiss in qualifying Mikusch for the job.
As a former officer, he was also the ideal candidate for the role of air raid warden. Margarete wrote to Unger about Allied bombings, about her hopes – shared, as she wrote, by many others – that the war might soon be over (won, as she believed, on German terms); about her husband’s more cautious assessment of the situation.
In February 1944, the Mikuschs lost their home in a bombing; Dagobert’s library was completely destroyed and with it probably many papers of interest. Margarete’s Steinway piano was also a total loss.(44) Prior to the bombing, they had already sent some of their possessions to the property of Margarete’s family in eastern Sudetenland for safekeeping; they now made the mistake of evacuating there as well. Despite their son Donat’s attempt to move them west in April 1945, they remained in Sudetenland until they were expulsed by the Czech authorities in the summer of 1945 ‘under the most difficult circumstances’, according to authors Eva Marx and Gerlinde Haas, while Donat von Mikusch simply mentions his parents’ ‘illuminating report’ on their experiences during their flight.(45) It is extremely doubtful that they managed to take many of their possessions with them or keep them during the difficult journey; as a rule, reports by fugitives of that time include being stripped of all valuables and arriving at the new German border with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Finally back home in Berlin, Margarete continued her correspondence with Hermann Unger. She described the struggle of earning money as pensions for ‘the two old museum pieces Dagobert and Marga’(46) didn’t seem to be forthcoming, and mentioned her husband’s failing health.
In a letter dated 29 October 1950, she wrote to Unger, describing at length her husband’s final weeks.

Dear Unger!
I thank you & your dear wife very much for your faithful remembrance. Your very personal, soothing letter deserves a quick answer. I am sure you would like to hear more. My poor husband had to have his left leg amputated above his knee on 19 September and we all believed, even the doctor, that he would cope well and soon return to his work, since he actually had a tremendous vitality, still. Before that, the pain caused by the cut-off blood flow – the leg arteries were completely clogged and no injections could help – had become almost raging and for several nights I had already given him a lot of morphine drops and a lot of Dolantine. Then he was always without pain for a few hours after the morphine [took] effect and worked on the corrections, as I said until 1 day before the amputation. He didn’t think it was too bad to have a leg removed at the age of 76 and told me even at the clinic ‘You always get so upset about everything.’ For a few days it was all right, the stump seemed to heal wonderfully, but soon after there began an indescribable ordeal, until finally there was no hope at all and the doctor then allowed morphine injections in (hopefully!) quite sufficient quantity. During the long recumbency the right leg also began to die, the stump festered on the left and other bad things came along, it was so terrible that I was like mad, just begging for more morphine. My husband was sometimes completely lucid! 2 days before his death he received me, when I came in, with the touching words: ‘I feel so terribly sorry for you.’ At last the 2nd bed of the room could not be occupied anymore and then good, faithful, brave Nötzlein [Frieda Nötzold, secretary and factotum in the Mikusch household] was allowed to sleep there for 6 nights, which was a great relief to him, he didn’t have to be afraid of waking up alone in the night and first have to ring for the night nurse. Of course, I myself was completely collapsing, always being there during the day, and Donat’s divorced wife slept with me at night. On 11 October pneumonia seemed to be looming, with high fever, and in the evening 7 o’clock his breathing simply stopped.(47)

Dagobert von Mikusch was buried at the Waldfriedhof in Berlin-Dahlem. Margarete survived him by eighteen years.

Since very little of Mikusch’s personal writings has survived or is accessible, it is difficult to get a sense of his character. As far as reports, newspaper articles and of course the memoirs of his son Donat and his friend Hermann Unger and the letters of his wife Margarete go, on the surface, Mikusch and Lawrence could not have been more different. Mikusch, the practical-minded career officer, had little in common with Lawrence’s complex and complicated personality. Fourteen years older than Lawrence, he approached his assignment in the Middle East not with far-reaching plans and glorious expectations, though perhaps with mildly romantic ideas. By all accounts, his life was as normal as times allowed; he married, had children, he took promotions as and when they came, did his job, and if he ever looked back on his time in Aleppo with regret, he kept silent about it. Lawrence’s life touched Mikusch’s through his books, and Mikusch’s remark to Alfred Haering concerning the ‘strange Englishman’ reveals that he at least followed some of the newspaper reports on Lawrence over the years; there is even a real possibility that Mikusch along with Unger on their visits to Jarabulus made a detour to Lawrence’s old stomping ground Carchemish. But it is doubtful that Lawrence ever knew of Mikusch’s existence; whether Mikusch tried to correspond with Lawrence directly will possibly never be known.
Yet some of their experiences echo one another. Mikusch’s life shows him to be not a stereotypical Prussian officer despite both his family’s tradition and the custom of men of his class and time; he could be unconventional and not above breaking or bending the rules; his interests clearly lay in art and philosophy and, after his involvement in 1915-1918, in the cultures and politics of the Near and Middle East. Both men had to witness realpolitik triumphing over morality, Lawrence in the matter of Arab independence, Mikusch in the Armenian question. Both were men of letters, and both wrote bestselling, often-translated books, although Mikusch’s Kemal has nothing of Seven Pillar’s brilliance and, if not downright forgotten, is seen today as a naive romanticisation at best, a dated propaganda piece at worst.
These days, Dagobert von Mikusch is mostly remembered, and familiar to German-speaking readers, as the translator of Seven Pillars of Wisdom and thus as Lawrence’s principle German ‘voice’.

Original works by Dagobert von Mikusch

Introduction to T. E. Lawrence: Aufstand in der Wüste, 1927
Gasi Mustafa Kemal, 1929
Muhammed – Tragödie des Erfolgs, 1932
Cecil Rhodes – Der Traum eines Weltherrschers, 1935/1936
Introduction to Hans Helfritz: Ewigkeit und Wandel im Fernen Osten, 1936
Waßmuß, der deutsche Lawrence, 1937
Franco befreit Spanien, 1939
Florian Geyer und der Kampf um das Reich, 1941
König Ibn Sa’ud, 1942
‘England im arabischen Raum’, in: Berliner Monatshefte, Vol. 20 (1942), no. 11

Translations by Dagobert von Mikusch

T. E. Lawrence: Aufstand in der Wüste, 1927
Harold Lamb: Dschingis Khan, Beherrscher der Erde, 1928
Richard Aldington: Heldentod, 1930
Winston Churchill: Weltabenteurer im Dienst, 1931
Deneys Reitz: Aufgebot, Freiheitskampf eines Volkes, 1932
Franklin D. Roosevelt: Unser Weg, 1934
Plutarchus: Große Griechen und Römer, ca. 1935
T. E. Lawrence: Die sieben Säulen der Weisheit, 1935/1936
Mary Annette von Arnim: Vater, 1936
Karl Baarslag: S-O-S zu Hilfe!, 1936
David Lloyd George: Mein Anteil am Weltkrieg, 1936
Harold C. Armstrong: Ibn Saud, König im Morgenland, 1936
Charles George Douglas Roberts: Augen der Wildnis, ca. 1936
Percy T. Etherton: Auf den Spuren der Eroberer, 1937
Marjorie Juta: Trommeln am Vaal, 1938
Harold Lamb: Omar Chajjam, 1939
Sidney Rogerson: Der letzte Angriff, 1939

Mikusch’s credited translation of the new edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Die Dschungelbücher (ca. 1936) is, as Wolf Harranth has pointed out,(48) a revision of previous translations by Kurt Abel-Musgrave and Sebastian Harms.

(1) He usually went by ‘von Mikusch’ and also published under the short version of his name.
(2) Bezirksamt Steglitz-Zehlendorf von Berlin, Straßen- und Grünflächenamt, e-mail to the author, 6 March 2019
(3) ‘Der Vordere Orient – Englands gefährdete Landbrücke‘, in: Österreichischer Beobachter, August 1942, p. 7
(4) Hüber, p. 53
(5) Neil Tweedie, ‘Mystery of woman paid wages by Lawrence of Arabia’, in: The Telegraph, 29 May 2002,; subsequently quoted in Lawrence in Lincolnshire, p. 49.
(6) Bundesarchiv Berlin-Lichterfelde, R9361-V/29019
(7) Matrikelbuch der Universität Heidelberg, Sommer-Semester 1906, entry no. 826; the students’ register of the University of Heidelberg shows he enrolled at the Faculty of Law, while Donat von Mikusch claims his father studied history and philosophy (Mikusch, p. 12).
(8) Mikusch, p. 11
(9) Marx/Haas, p. 275
(10) Der Sturm, Berlin, Vol. 3 (1913), no. 150/151, p. 279
(11) Seyffahrt, p. 258; Mikusch, p. 18. Donat von Mikusch claims his father was the town commandant but that is in all likelihood a misunderstanding.
(12) Neulen, p. 16
(13) The last ‘retired first lieutenant’ entry is in the 1921 edition; no entries for Mikusch in 1922 to 1925.
(14) Drexler, p. 4
(15) Kames, p. 31
(16) Hermann Unger, Bilder aus dem Orient, op. 17. Kleine Suite für Orchester. Kames, p. 144
(17) Unger, p. 81
(18) ibid. Martha Koch, née von Winckler, figures prominently in the memoires of German visitors of the time. Her daughters Paula and Lucy as well as Lucy’s Armenian husband Joseph Ayvazian acted as spies during the Second World War.
(19) Seyffahrt, p. 104, 258, 260-264
(20) According to archaeologist Walter Andrae, an acquaintance of Gertrude Bell, the plaque at Baalbek was actually installed by Sultan Abdul Hamid II and removed after the war (Andrae, p. 110). Enzyklopädie des Islam expands the story: It was in fact two plaques (one in German, the other in Turkish), and Kaiser Wilhelm was allowed to choose where they would be mounted. General Allenby ordered their destruction in 1918 but was persuaded otherwise; only the names of the Kaiser and his wife had to go. The plaques, considered to have been lost, were rediscovered in 1972, restored and put back on the temple wall sometime between 1975 and 1980. Because of further excavations after the Kaiser’s visit, the plaques are no longer on floor level but at the height of about ten metres today. (
(21) Unger, p. 81-83
(22) Neulen, p. 194
(23)$$AllDocs-en/1915-07-09-DE-001?OpenDocument, ‘From the Ambassador in Constantinople (Wangenheim) to the Reichskanzler (Bethmann Hollweg), Report No. 437, 9 July 1915’
(24)$$AllDocs-en/1915-07-27-DE-001?OpenDocument, ‘From the Consul in Aleppo (Rößler) to the Reichskanzler (Bethmann Hollweg), Report K. No. 81 / B. No. 1645, 27 July 1915’
(25)$$AllDocs-en/1916-04-07-DE-003?OpenDocument, ‘From the Consul in Aleppo (Rößler) to the Embassy Constantinople’
(26) Lawrence, Aufstand, p. X
(27) Seyffahrt, p. 130
(28) Seyffahrt, p. 132
(29) Kai Seyffahrt, e-mail to the author, 10 April 2019
(30) Hans-Lukas Kieser, ‘Germany and the Armenian genocide of 1915-17’, in: The Routledge History of the Holocaust, p. 40
(31) Neulen, p. 199
(32) Lawrence, Aufstand, p. X
(33) Lawrence, Seven Pillars (1922), p. 277
(34) Mangold-Will, p. 464; Drexler, p. 4
(35) Bundesarchiv Berlin-Lichterfelde, R9361-V/29019
(36) Literarische Umschau (supplement to Vossische Zeitung), 1 January 1928, p. 2
(37) cf. Alexander Will, ‘A View from the Other Side into the Unknown: What the Central Powers Knew and Thought about T. E. Lawrence in War and Peace’, in: The Journal of the T. E. Lawrence Society, Vol. 28, no. 2 (Spring 2019), p. 23-32
(38) Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach, HS008242625, Letter by Dagobert von Mikusch to Alfred Haering, 12 September 1936
(39) Lawrence, Sieben Säulen, blurb
(41) Lawrence, Sieben Säulen, p. 99
(42) Radio Wien, 9/1937, p. 25
(43) Würfel, p. 132
(44) Mikusch, p. 174
(45) Marx/Haas, p. 276; Mikusch, p. 188
(46) Letter by Margarete von Mikusch to Hermann Unger, 26 February 1950
(47) Letter by Margarete von Mikusch to Hermann Unger, 29 October 1950
(48) Wolf Harranth, ‘Der arme Mo(w)gli und der/die/das Dschungel‘, in: Der Übersetzer, Vol. 23 (1987), no. 9/10, p. 1-3. Harranth erroneously claims that Mikusch had never acted as a translator before the Kipling revision.


Walter Andrae, Babylon. Die versunkene Weltstadt und ihr Ausgräber Robert Koldewey (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1952)
Armenocide. The Armenian Genocide during the First World War,
Sven Olaf Berggötz, Nahostpolitik in der Ära Adenauer (Düsseldorf: Droste, 1998)
Berlin street directory 1890-1943
Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach
Josef Drexler, Mit Jildirim ins Heilige Land (Cologne: self-published, 1919)
Enzyklopädie des Islam,
History of Kleve,
Heidelberg street directory 1906-1909
Reinhard Hüber, Es wetterleuchtet zwischen Nil und Tigris (Berlin: Drei-Säulen-Verlag, 1940)
Stefan Kames, Hermann Unger – ein Komponist an der Wegscheide zwischen Moderne und Reaktion (Köln: Teiresias, 1999)
T. E. Lawrence, Aufstand in der Wüste (Leipzig: List, 1927)
T. E. Lawrence, The Complete 1922 Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The ‘Oxford’ Text (Salisbury: J. and N. Wilson, 2014)
T. E. Lawrence, Die sieben Säulen der Weisheit (Leipzig: List, ©1936)
Sabine Mangold-Will, Begrenzte Freundschaft (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2013)
Eva Marx, Gerlinde Haas, 210 österreichische Komponistinnen vom 16. Jahrhundert bis zur Gegenwart (Salzburg, Vienna, Frankfurt: Residenz-Verlag, 2001)
Donat von Mikusch, Der große Knall (Hamburg: Jahn & Ernst, 1999)
Margarete von Mikusch-Buchberg, Letters to Hermann Unger. In Unger’s estate.
Munich street directory 1910-1931
Hans Werner Neulen, Feldgrau in Jerusalem (Munich: Universitas, 1991)
The Routledge History of the Holocaust, edited by Jonathan C. Friedman (London, New York: Routledge, 2011)
Kai Seyffahrt, Entscheidung in Aleppo (Bremen: Donat, 2015)
Hermann Unger, unpublished autobiography. In Unger’s estate.
Wikipedia: Viktor von Mikusch-Buchberg,
Martin Würfel, Das Reichsjustizprüfungsamt (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2019)

Writing The Life of Benedict Arnold

My interest in any subject matter has always tended toward the fringes, the unexplored. Why research something or write about something that dozens of others have already researched or written about? Unless you have something new to contribute, why go over the same old ground again? Seems to me a waste of time.
That is how I came to write about Marta Hillers and Jolanthe Marès and Dagobert von Mikusch and their circles. The thing is that those topics usually find me instead of the other way around. I research one thing and stumble across another. Marta Hillers came from reading about the end of WW2 in Germany. Jolanthe Marès came from Marta Hillers, actually, as a contemporary Berliner writing about the role of women in society. And Dagobert von Mikusch arose from reading about T. E. Lawrence. They are part of a larger tapestry, and this is why we need “specialists”, those researchers of the little, forgotten things that are only mentioned in passing in the big picture. The microcosms that have a remarkable depth of their own.

So now I was reading about a historical figure that’s gotten a lot of attention but not much sympathy over the centuries, Benedict Arnold, stereotypically portrayed as the skulking villain.
The first biography Amazon listed was a work by Isaac N. Arnold, with some very good reviews, and the ebook was cheap (with reason, believe me), so that was what I chose. The Life of Benedict Arnold was actually the first attempt at fairness, at a balanced view, examining new sources and reexamining known ones. Written in the 19th century, it apologizes far too much, but that is, of course, owing to the time and culture that up till then had condemned Benedict Arnold summarily. While reading, I found myself becoming far more interested in that aspect of the book than in its subject matter!
Isaac N. Arnold (a very distant relative of Benedict by his own admission) was a biographer after my own heart: Passionate, fair, and understanding without condoning. He was still a man of his time, of course, the women of his story are without exception pious and faultless, and sometimes his writing drifts into pure novelization. But his research and consequent treatment of the material is all that I am looking for in a good biographer. He was not afraid of voicing unpopular opinions, of correcting longstanding assumptions and of portraying US history’s villain in a sympathetic light.

So for me the question became: Who was Isaac Arnold?
The publishing house tells us he wrote The Life of Abraham Lincoln. But it was Wikipedia that really surprised me, revealing him to have been quite an influential politician and lawyer before he ever became a writer. The entry lists an article by James A. Rawley as one of its main sources, but the accompanying link is broken, so here it is: “Isaac Newton Arnold, Lincoln’s Friend and Biographer”, in: The Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, vol. 19, no. 1 (1998).
Sadly, the article never even mentions the Benedict Arnold biography. Rawley, an eminent historian, writes: “No substantial biography of [Isaac] Arnold himself exists; many of his papers were apparently destroyed in the disastrous Chicago fire.”
The Wikipedia entry, however, notes that Isaac Arnold “did years of research” on the Benedict Arnold biography, using another broken link to the Paul F. Cooper Jr. Archives at Hartwick College. However, the resource appears to have been taken offline. There is some mention of Isaac as an alumni of Hartwick, and of the Matthews Collection that holds some material on him (mostly on abolition, I suspect). But that is all. It would appear there’s no “making of The Life of Benedict Arnold” to be reconstructed, or if it is, it’s beyond my means and possibilities right now. Perhaps when things have gone back to normal, as everyone is fond of saying…

Standing, not very long ago, on the battle-field of Saratoga, near where Benedict Arnold was grievously wounded, as he led as gallant a charge as was ever made, I realized that if he had died on that bloody field how brilliant would have been his record as a soldier and patriot. His name, associated with those of Montgomery and Warren, would have been canonized in American history, and his faults and foibles would have been lost in the blaze of glory which would have encircled it.
Standing there, I was impressed with the injustice which has been done him; not in condemning his treason, but in ignoring his virtues, and in refusing to recognize his great services; and I resolved to tell the story of his life truthfully and fairly.
(Isaac N. Arnold: The Life of Benedict Arnold)


Wie ja schon angedeutet: In Sachen Marta hat sich etwas getan. Eine ihrer Nichten, bei der ich seinerzeit für die Biographie recherchieren durfte, hat mir nun die meisten von Martas Unterlagen überlassen. (Ausgenommen Briefe und das Fotoalbum, aber die würde ich als Angehörige definitiv auch nicht weggeben.) Eine Schatztruhe voll mit Dingen nicht nur zu Marta Hiller selbst, sondern auch zu wichtigen Personen in ihrem Leben: Trude Sand/Gross, Robert A. Stemmle, natürlich Hans Wolfgang Hillers, Minerva-Verlag…
Mit der Sichtung werde ich einige Zeit beschäftigt sein!

The whole point

I may not remember exactly what I wrote in my controversial (at least to its author) review of the T. E. Lawrence biography; in fact, I can’t even find it on Amazon UK or US. Very odd. But at least I remembered what the point of my criticism was, and it still stands. So to make it clear here, I’ll stick to the bare facts. I’m not naming either the book or its author (my remarks were ‚almost libellous‘ to him, after all), so for simplicity’s sake he’ll be Mr X in this post.

Aside from the extremely interesting research on Lawrence’s parents and extended family, Mr X set out, like so many before him, to reveal the identity of ‚S.A.‘ of the famous dedication. To him, it is Farida al Akle, and up to a certain point I agree with him. ‚S.A.‘, to me, does not simply mean a person, but a time and place in Lawrence’s life as well, and two persons in it, of which Ms al Akle is one. Lawrence’s psychology is very complex, and this post is not about my interpretation of S.A., so I won’t go into it in the detail it requires. What I disagree with is Mr X’s exclusive interpretation of Farida al Akle as S.A.
A famous or infamous candidate throughout the decades has been Dahoum. Now, a fact is that when this assertion was first made, it was still a scandal. And I’m sorry to say that for many Lawrence scholars, fans and members of the T. E. Lawrence Society, it still is, especially since many of them are of the older generation. They still view the very idea that Lawrence might have been homosexual as an insult. And thus, they rally to his defence, sometimes quite vehemently. Mr X appears to be of their mindset, and several of the notable scholars he quotes as agreeing with his findings share the same view. And also many of the aforementioned fans and Society members agree with his findings, because they justify their own opinion and, buffered by good arguments, offer comfort.

Now, I don’t happen to share that view, either that suggesting homosexuality is an insult to Lawrence, or that Lawrence was heterosexual. I don’t share the often quoted ‚fact‘ of his asexuality either. I believe Lawrence had strong homosexual leanings but never acted on them in any meaningful way. And no, that is not the same as asexuality. I do believe that as a young man, when he met Farida al Akle, she was his ideal of chivalric love, as Mr X writes. But I also believe that at that time, he was not really sure about his sexuality. I believe Dahoum was the beginning of his journey, but he only truly realised that he was attracted to his own sex during the desert campaign.

The point: Mr X’s entire thesis hangs on Deraa. The same people I mentioned above are convinced the Deraa incident happened, which is odd, in my personal opinion – they would rather Lawrence had been raped than lied about it? And there are strong indications Deraa did *not* happen, but not even Jeremy Wilson was objective enough to say: ‚These things point to a trauma… those things make the episode doubtful.‘ Simply listing the pros and cons. So ’shame on me‘ (quote) for criticising even Wilson now?
Mr X’s arguments are valid only so long as the Deraa incident happened. If it didn’t, then his whole theory falls apart. That is what I was saying in my review.


Darn. Yesterday was partly spent puzzling over a Lawrence biographer’s rather rude e-mails in response to my Amazon review of his book from a year or so ago. I know my reviews can be snarky, so – fair is fair. But it’s been so long, I didn’t remember much of what I had written, and I thought (and still think) he completely overreacted. I had suggested his research was fake? What? I really liked his research, unlike his conclusions.
My subconscious must have figured out what the problem was, for late last night it finally dawned on me. Clarissa’s subtleties. No one gets them. I should never use them!
What I wrote or meant to say was that *if* someone wanted to question this author’s research, it would be easy for them to do as all his interview partners were long dead by this point, so nothing could be verified. Me, personally? I never doubted the veracity of those interviews. It was a theoretical case scenario only, because I have come across too much shoddy source criticism in my time and it always touches a nerve. But the author only sees me questioning his research, and cannot be persuaded to view it in a different light.
I just remembered: Not only did he list all the famous people who agreed with his findings in the e-mails, he did that in his book as well. So apparently the whole point for him is that he wants to be taken seriously as a Lawrence scholar. Consequently, to him, I threaten that, and that is why he flew off the handle like that. I would laugh at the disproportionality of it but actually I think it’s rather sad. (No doubt he would think me ‚patronising‘ again for it.)

Große Ereignisse…

Nun ja, ganz so groß sind sie nicht, aber vermutlich kann ich in absehbarer Zeit eine interessante Neuigkeit in Sachen Marta Hillers vermelden. Derzeit ist natürlich alles überschattet von den Corona-Maßnahmen (gar nicht mal so sehr von Corona selbst).
Bleiben Sie gesund, und lassen Sie sich nicht hysterisch machen!

The Eagles and the Wolves: An Assassin’s Creed episode

Albany, 1757

From their vantage point on Fort Frederick’s walls, Liam and Kesegowaase watched the attack continue below. Flames and smoke rose from the town, but the fighting had moved to the fort that the British still managed to defend. They fought valiantly, not least thanks to their commander who was right there in the thickest of it alongside them. Under different circumstances, Liam might have admired the man’s courage and tenacity. As it was, Monro needed to die, for many reasons. Without him, the French would carry the day, and the colonies would be rid of one of the most influencial secret puppetmasters pulling the strings of the British to establish their chokehold on the New World. The Assassins had harried him since Fort William Henry. He should have died there; he should have died several times after. Today, his luck finally ran out.
“Look,” Kesegowaase said, pointing at something in the distance beyond the town. His usually stoical face tightened in an expression of hatred, stretching the fresh scar tissue on his left cheek where his skin had been burned. Liam followed his gaze and felt his own mien freeze.
The Morrigan had laid alongside the pier, proudly flying the British flag as though to taunt him. Before long, Liam saw a familiar figure appear down among the breached ramparts, cutting down French soldiers, aiding the British defenders and especially their Templar commander. Liam found himself clenching his fists so hard they hurt. It was not that he had not believed Kesegowaase before. But to witness the truth with his own eyes cut deep. He had mourned and buried his best friend as rash and misguided perhaps but still as a good man. This creature, however, who’d clawed his way out of death’s jaws was neither. He’d made a choice Liam would never had thought him capable of making, a choice that mocked everything Liam stood for and Shay himself had professed to believe in. He didn’t even look like Shay anymore, this hard-faced stranger who fought with a determination and focus that had been but an unrealized promise before. Why did it have to be the Templars to bring out that potential? Liam almost drew his pistol then, but Shay was far out of range, and a small piece of Liam was glad for it.
Before long, the fighting down below came to a hold. The British had held Fort Frederick for the time being, and the two men responsible for the success now met among the defenses and spoke. Liam’s Eagle Vision was not strong enough to enable him to hear what was said, but he tensed when he saw Monro produce a familiar-looking book.
“Is that…?”
“Yes,” Kesegowaase confirmed, likewise watching the goings-on in the courtyard with hard eyes.
The stolen manuscript they had believed lost to the sea forever. This was an unexpected boon. From their perch, Liam and Kesegowaase watched as Monro tried to pass the manuscript on to Shay who declined. There was a wretched moment of what appeared to be light-hearted bantering between the two men. Liam saw an expression of amused exasperation flit over Monro’s face, the same expression he had seen many times before on the faces of his fellow Assassins, no doubt the same expression Liam himself had often worn when dealing with Shay. How quickly Shay had adapted, Liam thought bitterly, being friends with the enemy now.
The two men below split up, Monro leaving in the direction of the town and docks, Shay apparently staying behind to see to the defenses. A better opportunity to strike Liam and Kesegowaase could not have wished for.
“Follow Monro,” Kesegowaase said, never taking his eyes off of Shay’s black-clad form.
Liam threw him a quick glance. While his brother Assassin had his own good reason for going after Shay, Kesegowaase was also being kind in his matter-of-fact way. He was sparing Liam the burden of confronting and killing his former best friend – for that was whom Liam would have felt he needed to choose if the decision had been left to him. But Kesegowaase had decided for him. And Liam was grateful.
He nodded once, quickly descended the tower, and followed the Templar colonel over the walls of the fort.





The eagle and wolf symbolism has been treated somewhere before, I’m sure. To sum it up here: The eagle has been the Assassins symbol right from the beginning. The wolf as a symbol for the Templars came much later and has not been used consistently in the AC games but appears to be on the rise now. Examples are:

AC III: The first mentioning of the idea. “Wolves often travel in packs,” is the famous quote by not-so-line-toeing Templar Edward Braddock about his brethren that informed the use of the wolf symbolism from here on. Interestingly, in the AC III add-on/DLC The Tyranny of King Washington where everything is very different from what we know, Ratonhnhaké:ton wears a wolf hood, and the wolf is also one of his spirit animals (along with the eagle). Washington, on the other hand, wears an eagle crown.
Rogue: Chock-full of the symbolism, which doesn’t really surprise. The sweeping intro follows the flight of an eagle and passes over a wolf pack before coming to rest on our Assassin/Templar protagonist. Shay’s ship, the Morrigan, features a wolf figurehead as well as stylized wolves on her sails after Shay begins working with the Templars. In a related symbolism, he is called the Templar’s “hunting dog” or simply “dog” by the Assassins several times.
Origins: While the precursor (ha) of the Templars, the Order of Ancients’ symbol, is the snake, things begin to shift toward the end of the story. Septimius asks to be Caesar’s, the Order’s leader’s, “wolf”, corresponding to the wolf pelt he wears. This, of course, harkens back to Rogue where the wolf symbolizes the hunter.
Odyssey: Not quite as clear-cut, since the two factions don’t really exist as yet. What we find are concepts. The Cult of Cosmos are dedicated to chaos, making them precursors of the Assassins, as far as the two opposing forces go. Their white masks also /bring to mind the Assassins’ white hoods. Protagonist Kassandra or Alexios respectively stands for order, the red of their Spartan armour reminiscent of the red Templar cross. However, the Cult as an organization has much in common with the later Order of Ancients or Templars while Kassandra/Alexios and their companions more closely resemble the early Hidden Ones. There is another layer as well: The warring Spartans and Athenians are also representative of the order/chaos concept (not to mention of modern US politics with their “red” and “blue” affiliation). Rigid, ordered Sparta and artistic, free-thinking Athens are the same polar opposites that the Templars and Assassins will later represent. It doesn’t surprise, therefore, that we find the wolf symbol among the Spartans, in Nikolaos, “the Wolf of Sparta”, while Kassandra/Alexios have their pet eagle Icaros.

I know I keep repeating myself, but I truly love Rogue as a story. It is a story without villains, quite a feat for an Assassin’s Creed game. Its characters are all, without exception, trying to do what is right, and for the first time, we get to understand both sides of the conflict. Even more so than in AC III, the Templars are rounded, three-dimensional characters, each with their own distinctive personality. There is a great dynamic between them; they form friendships; they have fun.
Oh, and did anyone notice that the end scene at Versailles echoes the opening scene at the opera in AC III?

Greek tragedy never died: Assassin’s Creed III as the modern incarnation of a very old genre

I’ve been musing about this for a while now, but I never seriously formulated the thought until Haytham actually said it in my short story “Endings (and Beginnings)”. So this post marks something of a departure from my biography-centered texts. I’m always fascinated by the subject matter, the art of storytelling, with – if done right – its use of archetypes and themes in many different forms. Too often, critics and reviewers overlook this art in video games, snobbishly considering them to be beneath “real” art. But the better ones of them also follow the classic Hero’s Journey and are written by actual script writers. (Not to mention voiced by some excellent actors who give their characters another level of depth.) I’ve come across some brilliant examples in my time.
One of them is the topic of this post, Assassin’s Creed III. For those readers unfamiliar with it, I recommend watching it on YouTube, as I will not give a summary of the complex plot and backstory here; there are some good cut-scene movies to enjoy. (I’ve embedded my favourite at the end of this post.)
A big mistake I notice many players and fans make is that they consider the main character in any of the AC games to be the hero – in a real sense of the word. For them, the fact that the protagonist *is* the protagonist means that he (or she) is automatically right, and anyone who opposes them is automatically wrong. A clear divide between good and evil. But by adopting this way of thinking the players are missing out on the very best part of the story. Protagonist Connor of AC III, for example, is not special as a character, no matter what we are supposed to believe. As a character, he could not carry the plot. The secret is the situation in which he is set. For AC III is a Greek tragedy in disguise: The hero (or heroine) faces an impossible choice and can only lose one way or the other. One early manifestation of it, of course, is Connor’s mixed heritage, half white, half Native.
Let’s take a look.

The game starts with the biggest deception of all that is also a manifestation of the underlying theme: Which side are we on, anyway? We are led to believe Haytham and his associates are Assassins, even though there are clever, subtle hints all the way through.
We get a bittersweet love story without a future and a child whose existence is kept from his father. A classic.
A brilliant piece of story device that I can’t stress enough is five-year-old Connor’s meeting with Charles Lee & Co. Everything Connor does from here on is coloured, influenced by the fears of a little boy. He sees those men as monsters. We have seen them as ordinary men, and by and by an adult Connor does, too, but he is never, throughout the game, rational in his reaction to them.
Connor misinterprets Juno’s message as well. She (as the literal incarnation of the capricious Greek gods who tend to use mortals as their pawns and more often than not cause great suffering in the process) attempts to keep the 18th century Templars from finding the Precursor site and messing with its vital function in their ignorance. (The Seismic Temples of Rogue, anyone?) Connor believes the Templars are threatening his people. And so he seeks out Achilles – again, the classic Hero’s Journey, except Achilles comes with his own bias and misconceptions. Since Rogue, I see Achilles’ motivations and actions in a very different light. Does he really believe the Templars are supporting the British or does he still feed on the information from the Seven Years‘ War? Is he so adamant about Connor having to kill Haytham because the Grand Master holds all the threads together – or because of Achilles’ own personal grudge against him? Is Achilles subconsciously just as a pawn to his fears and hatred as Connor is to his?
So Connor buys into yet another misconception. It is not until he actually meets Haytham that all the questions that have been piling up are finally answered… and the situation turns out to be quite different from what Connor had believed. The Templars support American independence, not work with the British. The “monsters” tried to prevent bloodshed and to protect Native lands. Goals that Connor in his ignorance has made impossible, by casting his lot with the very people who murdered his mother. His course not only leads him to kill his best friend and his father (another classic) but also insures that his people lose their land, their rights, their freedom… everything Connor set out to secure.

This is Greek tragedy at its finest.

Secondary main character, both protagonist and antagonist, Haytham, described in an early character draft as a “dark James Bond” which I really don’t get (what does that even mean? That he’s British?), luckily for all evolved into a far more complex character independent of any pop culture icon. In fact, he is one of those characters that develop a life of their own. “Blessing or curse, I am my own man.” From a storytelling point of view, he’s a stand-in for the king in Greek tragedies: The young hero who becomes the young king who in turn becomes the old king who then has to face the young hero/prince.

There is another level as well. AC III is a story about fathers and sons. William and Desmond, Haytham and Connor, even Vidic and Daniel Cross are the obvious candidates, but there’s also Achilles who, despite his lack of outward affection, gives Connor the name of his own late son, and there is also Haytham and Charles Lee (the writers fudged a bit there, since Lee is only seven years younger than Haytham). Connor and Haytham try valiantly to make their relationship work, but it’s a doomed effort because both are already committed to another father figure and surrogate son respectively, men much closer to their own hearts and convictions than the real deal that is only DNA, after all.
It is, by the way, a very popular story device in AC. We find it in Altaïr and Al Mualim, Shay and George Monro, Arno and François de la Serre, in a twisted sort of way in Jacob and Jack, not to mention all the very classic instances in Odyssey.

I love these aspects. The art of storytelling. It makes AC so much more interesting than mere jumping and stabbing.

P.S.: I left out the fact that Connor did, by proxy, save the world, simply because a classic Greek tragedy never looks at the long-term results of its characters‘ actions. It would be immensely interesting if it did.