Review of 1917: Red Banners, White Mantle by Warren H. Carroll (1981) Christendom Press.
Every once in awhile a book will come into one’s hands that is impossible to put down, ends too soon, and begs to be read again and again. This little book, at 131 pages (although the print is rather small) is such a one. It is well footnoted and a riveting read. Dr. Carroll has a way of making history come alive; the reader is a part of the momentous events that occur in this gem of a work. Where else do we find a book that connects three such events: the final and terrible year of The Great War, the Communist Russian Revolution and the first appearance of Our Lady at Fatima to the three children — “a contest that embraces Heaven, earth and hell.” Did I say that this is a wonderful book and a must-read?
Dr. Carroll begins the book with three introductory chapters describing events that took place before 1917 — background to the main story, so to speak. First, he tells us of the hopelessness of the war situation in Europe, how both sides were literally bogged down in mud with no hope of advancement, retreat, or peace. Austria-Hungary was the last remnant of the Holy Roman Empire, its aged emperor, Franz Josef, nearing his end. Having lost his son to suicide, his beloved wife to assassination, his brother to Masonic assassins in Mexico and his nephew, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, to a Serbian assassin’s pistol in Sarajevo — the event which touched off the horrific war — the old emperor now, in 1916, was dying. His remaining heir, the last Hapsburg, Charles (now Blessed Karl) was called from the battlefield and given the charge of the Empire. This holy young man and his wife, Zita, would rule the last Catholic Empire on the face of the earth as it went down to defeat in the hopeless war.
Russia during that same time was becoming ripe for revolution. While Czar Nicholas II was a devout Christian and a loving husband and father, he did not have the spine it took to be an absolute autocrat. He was as ineffective on the battlefield as he was on the throne of Holy Mother Russia, and he was easily pushed around both by his advisers in war and in government and by his wife. The royal couple had the misfortune of having their beloved son, Alexis, the youngest child and only boy (and heir) of their six children, afflicted with the incurable and deadly condition of hemophilia. Unfortunately, Alexandra, the Empress, allowed herself to be entrapped in the snare of one who called himself a starets, a wandering monk. Now, this was nothing unusual. Russia has had many of these pious monks living a wandering and solitary life; this particular monk, however, was anything but holy. His real name was Gregory, but he became known to history as Rasputin, the Dissolute One, because of his promiscuous lifestyle and the hypnotic effect that he had on women. One could say that if the downfall of the Russian monarchy could be blamed on any one person, the finger would point to this wretched creature. Dr. Carroll’s description of the man himself and, especially, of the way he died, will remain in the reader’s mind for a long time. Rasputin was truly one of the great villains of history.
Another situation for Russia was the long and tragic history of her impoverished millions who suffered serfdom, years of mistreatment and starvation, and literally insane rulers. We will remember that the latter half of the nineteenth century was a time of growing nationalism and revolution all over Europe. While revolution came to Russia later, it came with a bang in the person of Vladimir Ulyanov, known as Lenin. Although he had a happy childhood and was raised a Christian, when his older brother was executed for implication in a plot to assassinate Czar Alexander III, he vowed to bring down the monarchy and institute a dictatorship of the Marxist proletariat, a plot he worked on for seventeen years from neutral Switzerland while war raged over the rest of Europe. Dr. Carroll’s treatment of Lenin is as colorful and interesting as Rasputin’s story.
The final side of our triangle of events takes place at Fatima, Portugal, a country that eventually joined the Allied side in the war, but whose peasant population only heard rumors of the great conflict. In the summer of 1916, three little children tended their sheep on the slopes of the Serra da Aire, the Airy Mountains. The oldest was a girl, Lucia, who was very religious and knowledgeable of her Catholic faith. She and her cousins, Jacinta and Francisco, enjoyed reciting the Rosary together on “The Head,” a rocky outcropping where their voices echoed over the distance. Jacinta taught her young cousins about Our Lord and Our Lady. In Dr. Carroll’s words, “Their faith was simple, direct, profound and clear to the depths, as in a limpid stream. They called the sun ‘the lamp of Our Lord’ and the moon, ‘the lamp of Our Lady.’” Jacinta would often carry one of her lambs as Our Lord did – around her shoulders. On one of these sparkling summer days, they saw a white light approaching – pure, vivid, a perfect white. The light became a young boy of about fifteen years who called himself the Angel of Peace and taught them to pray with him, “My God, I believe, I adore, I hope and I love You! I beg pardon of You for those who do not believe, do not adore, do not hope and do not love You!” They repeated this three times after him. He then told them to pray thus always. Twice more that summer angels appeared to the children: One called himself the Guardian Angel of Portugal and the third gave their first Holy Communion to Jacinta and Francisco. The specific dates of those apparitions are not known, but, as Dr. Carroll points out, every day of that summer, “there were seven thousand futile casualties at Verdun and on the Somme.”
The third short introductory chapter includes the coronation of Emperor Charles and Zita as king and queen of Hungary in the great cathedral of Budapest. Charles was crowned with the crown of Saint Stephen, which Pope Sylvester had sent to Stephen recognizing him as the first Christian king of Hungary in 1000 AD. Queen Zita placed around her husband’s shoulders the cloak which Stephen’s queen Gisela had made for him in 1031. A memorable sight this must have been indeed!
This final introductory chapter of events of 1916 includes a lengthy (for such a short book) description – literally blow-by-blow – of Rasputin’s demise at the hands of loyal friends and relatives of the Czar. Gruesome it is, as the man seemed determined to remain immortal.
The remainder of the book, and its major part, is comprised of a chapter for each month of the year 1917, except for the final two months, which share a chapter. “Road to Judgment,” the final chapter is the book’s denouement. All three momentous events – the War, the Russian Revolution, as well as the Fatima happenings are intertwined in a very clever and effective way by the author. For an indispensable grasp of twentieth-century history, this book is not to be passed by.