Thessalonians 2:6-7 are one the most debated passages in the Bible. It is not even certain that this second letter to the Thessalonians of Paul is genuine. There are a wide variety of translations besides the one I am suggesting here:
“and the thing now holding (him) down (or restraining him) you know, so that he (is) to be revealed in his own time”.
“for the mystery of this lawlessness is already working only until the one now holding (him) down (or restraining him) shall get out of the way.”
The Greek verb katechon is a compound verb containing kata (down) and echo (to have, to hold, to restrain).
One definition could be “to prevent an evil person or power from breaking out”.
One of the main debates have historically been whether the Roman Empire or the Roman emperor were to be seen as restraining forces holding back Antichrist. In this report some concrete possible restrainers in history from 500 AD to the present will be considered.
Byzantium and Islam
Since September 11, 2001, radical Islam has once more been focused on in the West as a threat. The new foe of Islam to Byzantium and the West appeared on the eastern frontiers of the Byzantine empire in 629. Islam swept out of Arabia to strike at Persia and Byzantium. Overwhelming Persia the eastern provinces of the empire (633-642) were lost but the Anatolian and Thracian heart of Byzantium survived. Now began a centuries long struggle to restrain the onslaught of the Islamic foe which has maybe not been historically emphasized enough. No doubt Byzantium served as an important restrainer in world history.
At the time when Islamic attacks started Byzantium was the most prosperous empire in the world. New conquests were however out of the question for Constantinople. The military concentrated on defense but understood that such a strategy would attract invaders.
Thus a medieval concept of deterrence was constructed. The desire was to avoid war if possible. When it was necessary to fight it had to be punishing to the enemy with a minimum of expenditure of wealth and manpower. Economic, political, and psychological warfare assisted the use of force. Dissension in the camp of the foe was fomented and alliances used to the advantage of the empire. A vast intelligence network of merchants and agents provided information.
In the seventh and eighth centuries the Moslems frequently managed to drive deep into Anatolia and the Byzantine possessions in North Africa were lost. Islam also seriously challenged Byzantine control of the sea. For the first time the foe was at the gate of Constantinople but all attacks were repulsed. Then, however, at the turn of the new century, internal discord set in. This was used by Islam to throw new attacks at the empire.
Strengthened the Byzantine Empire, however, rose to battle the Islamic Caliphate hammering at the eastern frontier. The empire was even expanded in the Balkans, Asia Minor, Syria, Armenia, Italy, and Greece.
A catastrophic reversal came when the Seljuk Turks under Alp Arslan defeated Emperor Romanus at Manzikert in 1071. This led to the loss of all Asiatic dominions and there only remained a few fortified seaports on the coast of Anatolia. The empire never fully recovered after Manzikert but continued to fight Bulgars, Turks, and Crusaders. Roughly, however, between 1100 and 1200 Byzantium was still the wealthiest and most powerful single nation of Southwestern Asia and the Balkans.
The end of the Byzantine Empire in practice, ironically, was the result not of an assault by Islam but by Western Crusaders. After 1203 only remnants scattered along the coast of Anatolia and Greece persisted. After 57 years the emperor managed to re-establish himself in Constantinople. Even if Byzantium survived for around two and a half centuries more, it was only a pale shadow of its strength as restrainer in the east. The Fourth Crusade had in practice smashed Christendom’s bulwark in the east.
John Foster Dulles and the Stalinist Threat
John Foster Dulles could be regarded as an important restrainer when the Stalinist Soviet Empire was at its peak of power. The British Economist summarized in 1959: “That he (Dulles) is a brave man and devoted servant of his country can be said now by everybody…He has the quality that every great American has had, the quality of character; and to this he has added the humdrum virtues that matter in democratic public life, tenacity, conscientiousness, and sheer hard work in his job… (Burnham).
Dulles really meant for containment to function. By blocking further Soviet advance it was possible to keep the Soviets from conquering the European non-communist nations. Dulles resisted communism as godless and evil from a stern duty of his Calvinist conscience. Stalinism threatened his country and civilization. Therefore he resisted as a man of the West and an American patriot.
It is a burden on the West that it stood passively by when Stalin died, the uprisings took place in the slave camps, during the East German and Polish mass demonstrations, the Hungarian revolt and the revolt in Tibet.
One theory contends that there is an ebb and flow in the sweeping tide of great conquerors – Attila, Hitler, and Lenin-Stalin. If the West managed to restrain the flow, the ebb could leave us intact and to move forward again.
Winston Churchill and the Bolsheviks
Winston Churchill regarded the Bolshevik revolt in 1917 as a great danger to the West, as it could spread westward. V.I. Lenin also openly declared his intentions of world revolution starting westward from Moscow. Even before he took over the War Office in January, 1919, Churchill had argued for a large-scale joint military intervention by all five principal Allies to bring down the Bolshevik regime. If the Americans were reluctant the other four should go alone – the British, the French, the Japanese and the Italians. But Lloyd George opposed it. Churchill argued that Russia would primarily have to be saved by the Russians themselves. The White Forces could be provided with arms, ammunition, and technical services on a voluntary basis. If this did not work Allied troops could be dispatched.
Churchill returned as a possible candidate for restrainer in 1945. Just after Germany’s defeat he ordered a draft contingency plan for an Anglo-American invasion of the Soviet Union. Codenamed “Operation Unthinkable” it would include the use of German troops to back up 500,000 British and American soldiers. They would attack the Russians through northern Germany. The background was the prediction that Josef Stalin would invade Turkey, Greece, Norway and the oil fields of Iraq and Iran. He would order extensive sabotage operations in France, the Netherlands and Belgium. The Churchill plan was later exchanged for a defensive plan of guarding against invasion of Soviet armies (Brook-Shepherd, pp. 165-167).
Emperor Rudolph II of the Holy Roman Empire
The rule of Emperor Rudolph II of Habsburg (1576 – 1612) was a crucial period for the West. An aggressive Ottoman Empire was moving on the Christian empires. In 1590 land war was renewed by the Ottomans. An Austrian army defeated and crushed the army of Hassan, Ottoman governor of Bosnia. This enraged Sinan Pasha to a degree that he led an army to invade Hungary and Austria. After initial successes Sinan was forced to return to Belgrade as the troops refused to operate in wintertime (it was October). During 1593 and 1594 Austrian raids were made into Hungary. The latter year Sinan made a new attempt, this time in northern Hungary, but was repulsed. In 1595 Christians in Transylvania,
Moldavia, and Wallachia revolted and drove out the Turks. Charles of
Manfeldt led an Austrian invasion into Hungary taking opportunity of the revolts. Local Turkish forces were defeated in the battle of Gran (August 4, 1595). Now the whole northern frontier of the Ottoman Empire was crumbling.
The Turks came back in 1596 to regain control of Hungary. Vizier Ibrahim Pasha led Turkish armies to repel the Austrian invasion. This led to the important Battle of Kerestes, October 24-26, 1596, when Austrian Archduke Maximilian and Transylvanian leader Sigismund Bathory with
40,000 troops stood against 80,000 Turks. It was a decisive Turkish victory which left 23,000 Christians on the battlefield.
New warfare on the border occured 1597 and 1598.
When Rudolph guaranteed Freedom of Religion in Bohemia in 1609 it lead to his overthrow. He died in 1612.
Rudolph’s reign was marked by continuing warfare against the Ottoman Turks but also Protestant-Catholic dissension. Had Islam broken through against the Austrian forces it might have had dire consequences for the European Christians.
Regional Restrainers – Marshal Jozef Pilsudski of Poland
Marshal Jozef Pilsudski (1867-1935) was a Polish war hero and the creator of an independent Polish republic in 1918. During the Russian Civil War Poland occupied areas bordering Belorussia and Ukraine. To defend Poland Pilsudski took to the offensive in April-May 1920 driving for Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, which he captured on May 7. He then swung north to attack Soviet forces behind the Pripet Marshes and then Soviet Generals counterattacked. The bolsheviks swept westward reaching the outskirts of Lviv (Lvov, Lemberg, Lvov) by June 13. In July it seemed that Warsaw would fall to Soviet forces. 180,000 Poles faced 200,000 Soviet troops. It was a crucial moment. A Soviet victory might have opened the door to communist revolutions in the heart of the West.
At that time the French sent General Maxime Weygand to advise Pilsudski, who decided to attack the Soviet center. The Battle of Warsaw, August 16-25, 1920, ranks as one of the decisive battles of the twentieth century. It was the first serious check of communism’s advance westward and comparable to the victory of Charles Martel against Islamic forces at Tours.
In September the Polish troops advanced eastward. The armies of Pilsudski entered Grodno on September 26 and the Soviets were beaten back to Minsk. This lead to the Treaty of Riga on March 21, 1921, when the Soviets conceded all of Poland’s territorial claims.
Had it not been for Marshal Pilsudski Berlin might have been the next Soviet target.
The possible Polish regional restrainer ruled Poland several times until his death in 1935.
An attempt has been made above to present a few examples of possible restrainers, both international and regional, in the West during the past 2000 years. It is likely that every epoch in Western history has had a restrainer. It ought to be an interesting subject for research to try to identify other possible restrainers during these 20 centuries. What is, for instance, or has been the role of European unity and rivalry as a restraining force?
What role have Portugal and Russia played on what has been a possible dual track global strategic restraining of the early Muslim attacks on the West?
When civilization was threatened by Muslim invaders the West countered in southern and northern global strategic counterattacks. To the north of the Muslim civilization Russia expanded eastward, a land based expansion. To the south of the Muslims the Portuguese expanded a seaborne empire with superior ship artillery.
The early Middle Ages was the time of an Islamic expansion. France was threatened and the Moors occupied most of Spain.
The West was preparing to move eastward, south and north of the Muslim empire, in defense. To go east Western explorers had to go south. The patron was Prince Henry of Portugal (1398 – 1460). In 1415 the Portuguese had captured Ceuta in North Africa, opposite Gibraltar. Originating in Portugal, ships started moving south along the coast of Africa. After Prince Henry’s death there was a pause. But new exploration followed supported by Portuguese Prince John during the 1470’s and 1480’s. In 1497 the Cape of Good Hope was rounded by Vasco da Gama.
The year after the Indian Ocean was entered and 1498-1499 da Gama followed north along the shoreline of East Africa to cross the Indian Ocean from a point in south Somalia to Western India and Calicut.
Later Portuguese Tomé Pires made a voyage to the East Indies. Early in 1515 he sailed from Malacca for the South China Sea. Now Portugal had entered the Pacific Ocean from the south but almost 150 years before the Russians founded Ochotsk on the Pacific Ocean.
While this was going on the Moors had been expelled from Spain by
Ferdinand and Isabella, who now had time to listen to the Genoese born
Christopher Columbus, who, funded by bankers and the Crown of Aragon, later crossed the Atlantic to America. The encirclement of the Muslim empire had in the south been completed in around 250 years.
As a result it may even be a matter of the sea frontier, at this stage, superseding the steppe frontier of Eurasia.
As Sir Halford Mackinder wrote:”Once the Portuguese had found the ocean-way into the Indian seas, they soon disposed of the opposition of the Arab dhows. Europe had taken its foes in the rear; it had sailed round to the rear of the land, just as Xerxes, Alexander, Hannibal, and the Crusaders had marched round to the rear of the sea.”
In the Middle Ages Russia had been ravaged by the Mongols. Gengis Khan, a supreme military genius, created a more efficient administration in Asia than the ones at that time existing in the West. Russia was part of a World-Empire-in-the Making. The Mongols created a world wide system of universal peace, justice and equality. This was laid down in the Mongol law code, ’the Yasa’. In reality Moscow owed its influence to the Tartar ”yoke” of 250 years. Tartars were the true unifiers of Russia. The system of a unified and centralized army based on universal conscription was introduced, there was a very efficient service of post and intelligence, known under the name of ’yam’ and in the sphere of finance and taxation the Tartars had few rivals. Names of many Russian fiscal institutions are of Mongol origin: ’kazna’, treasury, ’tamga’, customs office, ’kabala’ debt-slavery. The Russian name for money, ’dengi’, is also Tartar as ’kopeika’, coin.
A periodic population census was introduced unrivalled in the West. The Tartars also used capital punishment and judicial torture. The Russian state was born out of the blood and agony of Mongol subjugation.
Russia later started expanding with two campaigns by Ivan the Terrible in the 1550s destroying the Khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan. Now Siberia beckoned. When reaching the Urals a sea of forest lay ahead, thousands of miles to the Pacific Ocean. Within fifty or sixty years small Cossack bands traversed Siberia. The Urals was crossed by Yermak in 1581. It was only a century later that Russia had the first conflict with China. The principal towns in Siberia were established during the 16th and 17th centuries: Tiumen 1586, Tobolsk 1587, Obdorsk 1595, Narym 1596, Tomsk 1604, Yeniseisk 1619, Krasnoyarsk 1628, Yakutsk 1632, and Okhotsk 1649.
It took the Russians around 100 years to complete the northern encirclement of the Muslim world. It would thus be of interest to further research the Portuguese and Russian roles as restrainers.
Burnham, James, The Dulles Record: An Appraisal, National Review, April 25, 1959.
Brook-Shepherd, Gordon, Iron Maze – The Western Secret Services and the Bolsheviks, London: Macmillan, 1998.
“Britain planned attack on Soviets”, The Michigan Daily Online, October 2, 1998.
D’Abernon, Edgar: The Eighteenth Decisive Battle of the World: Warsaw, 1920, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1931 (reprinted in the United States 1977).
Mackinder, Halford, Democratic Ideals and Reality, New York: Norton, 1962 (a collection of Mackinder’s most important geopolitical writings).
Mosley, Leonard, Dulles, New York: Dial Press, 1978.
Murphey, Rhoads, Ottoman Warfare, 1500-1700, London: UCL Press, 1999.
Pilsudski, Jozef, Year 1920 and Its Climax: Battle of Warsaw During the Polish-Soviet War, 1919-1920, London: Pilsudski Institute of London (in the United States Pilsudski Institute of America, 1972).
Pipes, Richard, Russia under the Bolshevik Regime, 1919-1924, New York: Knopf, 1994.
Reader’s Guide to Military History (Ed. Charles Messenger), London, Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2001.