Zan yuhqui nonyaz in oompolihui xochitl ah?
Shall I just go like the flowers that were fading?
Firstly, a writer who is imbued with a child's love of words for their own sake is delighted to find a word beginning with “X” for an essay title. Secondly, my original exposure to this word caused the back hairs on my neck to stand out. I should like to explain why. But first of all I need to explain the word itself.
The language is Nahuatl; it was spoken in the Aztec Empire and used subsequently as the teaching medium in Mexico until 1780, when it was replaced by Castilian by order of the Spanish government. The word is in two parts. The first part is “xochitl” which means “flower”, and by extension “beautiful”. Hence the name Ixtlilxochitl (“Agave Flower”) who was a historian in the sixteenth century. Nopalxochitl is “Opuntia flower”. The composer Carlos Chávez wrote a piece for a percussion-dominated orchestra called Xochipilli-Macuilxochitl. When you unscramble this (it translates as “Flower prince – Five flower” you get some clues as to how the language works. Xochipilli was the god of music, which was regarded as the flower of the five recognised arts. Then a xochicalli (“flower house”) was a bath-house. Be patient; I am getting there.
Xochimiquiztli (“beautiful death”) was death by ritual heart extraction from a living human victim! And xochiyaotl, the title of this essay, was “beautiful war”; that is, a war waged by in oceloc in cuauc, Jaguars and Eagles, the crack troops of the Empire, to capture victims for this purpose.
Allegedly the sun would not rise in the heavens unless it were offered still-beating human hearts. The Spanish regarded this as devilish pagan superstition, and who can blame them? Yet behind it there was something even more sinister. The imperial practice of raiding neighbouring states for prisoners had been given religious sanctification by Tlacaelel, who was Cihuacoatl (“Lady Snake”) during the second half of the fifteenth century. [Mexican states were ruled by a consortium of four officials, of whom the chief was Tlatoani or “spokesman”. Lady Snake, a man, was the official in charge of the religious establishment, that is, High Priest.] In other words, the Mexican Empire was governed by state-sponsored terror under the supervision of the religious authorities.
Now why did the hairs on my neck stand out when I read about these things in Hugh Thomas's brilliant work The Conquest of Mexico? The answer is that I had recently visited a war memorial to the dead of both World Wars. The dead of the First World War were said to have made “the supreme sacrifice”. The Latin tag was quoted: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country.) On the other hand, the dead of the Second World War were said to have been “killed in action”.
The distinction struck me as terrible, even frightening. The Second World War was a police action against a gang of criminals who had seized control of the vast resources of a modern state. Persons killed in the pursuit of that action were entitled to the same honour that would be accorded to a police officer who was killed in the execution of his duty. The First World War, on the other hand, was a xochiyaotl, in which the religious establishment glorified the slaughter by imposing their own vocabulary on its objects and outcomes. All the combatant governments had God on their side and their religious leaders told them that that was so. The simple dignity of the Second World War memorials sharply contrasts with the florid religiosity of those of the First. German war memorials are just the same, but in fancy lettering. The Kaiser's troops went to war under the slogans “Gott mit uns” and “Gott straf' Engeland” (May God punish England). Of course, the Kaiser's advisers expected that the war would be like the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, in which Prussian officers would ride, resplendent in full-dress uniform, into Paris on white chargers. I am not saying that the British should not have tried to stop them. Clearly it was vital to British interests to support Belgium and France. The history would be defined by barbed wire and machine-guns.
What leaves a bitter taste after the passage of a hundred years is the religiously inspired propaganda of the period. “Our glorious dead”, for example. “Sacrifice”, for goodness' sake! “Purification”, the idea that a better society would be left behind by the shot and bayoneted.
Sherlock Holmes to Watson at the end of His Last Bow:
“But it's God's own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.”
Karl Marx believed that the rise of the proletariat would put an end to wars, since the workers would see that it was against their common interests to fight their fellows. The Communist Manifesto (1849) ends: Proletarier aller Länder, vereinigt euch (rendered in English as “Workers of the world, unite.”) In the event, workers of all countries did indeed unite, but under their national banners to kill each other. Socialist parties split into nationalist majorities and persecuted Marxist minorities. After the war, when the survivors licked their wounds, the Marxists were seen to have been right. This is what gave legitimacy to the Communist movement. Alas, the Russian Empire was taken over by gangsters taking advantage of that legitimacy.
British propagandists claimed to be fighting a war to “preserve civilisation”. Actually, they were fighting a war, at least to begin with, to stop the Kaiser taking control of the Channel Ports. In 1914, one needs to ask “What civilisation?” In those days much of European civilisation was dominated by Germans and Austrians. Even as late as the 1960's Oxford science students were expected to take a course in Scientific German, and even today scientific papers are usually prefaced by a Zusammenfassung or summary in the German language. Before the great catastrophe, perhaps the greatest living poet was Rainer Maria Rilke; the greatest philosopher Wittgenstein; and world-changing ideas were coming thick and fast in the arts and sciences from German-speaking countries. Think Einstein, Planck, Wegener, Schoenberg etc etc. It was the Second World War that was fought to defend civilisation, not the first. But the allies' objectives were never expressed in such a high-flown way. It was the Nazis who proclaimed that their objective was “purification”, though they meant by that extermination of the Jews. The nearest we ever got to purification in practice was the post-war Entnazifizierung, though that was never thorough, and the Germans themselves have taken steps to prevent any sort of Nazi revival in their own country, while the establishment of the European Court of Human Rights (!) was intended to stop it happening in the rest of Europe. The Americans put a huge amount of money into restarting the shattered economies of the European nations, and a lot of diplomatic effort into encouraging them to collaborate. Where Hitler had wrecked German culture, the Americans tried to rekindle it by such efforts as setting up the Darmstadt school of avant-garde composers. Most Europeans, however, preferred American jazz music, American teenage popular music, American film music, and American stage music.
The First World War was the result of a dreadful failure of the politicians of the time to pursue their primary duty of protecting the lives and welfare of their citizens. One reason for that was that those same politicians resented the moves towards democracy that were happening everywhere and which were threatening the entrenched privileges of the ruling classes. Since the historic purpose of religion has always been to protect those privileges, one should not be surprised that the propaganda of the period was couched in religious imagery. But it was incompetence, bad faith, and guilty consciences that created xochiyaotl.