Your WWII Knowledge is Inadequate if it Doesn’t Inlude the Eastern Front

 

For far too long in my life, even as I arrogantly assumed the mantle of a WWII history buff, I regrettably neglected the Eastern Front and possessed only a parochial, U.S.-centric view. Over the last few years, I have come to view any World War II, or really any 20th century history education journey, to necessitate deeper knowledge and understanding of the world shaping events that happened before, during, and after the Eastern Front.

 

For those of you who may be skeptical of my initial claim, consider the following as to why you need to dive into the “rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey was fond of saying, and the Eastern Front’s tragic and longstanding global impacts, along with some of my personal recommendations on books to read to begin the journey:

 

  • Combined U.S. and U.K. total casualties, soldier and civilian, were less than 1M. In comparison, Soviet casualties were more than 27 million. It is impossible to comprehend that scale of death and the impact on a society, but it is easy to understand that a 27X impact is going to leave a completely different indelible experience and impact on a society, especially one as closed and isolated as was the USSR of that time. For more on the Red Army and life within it and within the USSR in general, the book Ivan’s War is a good place to start. Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad and sequel Life and Fate are magisterial historic fiction accounts that bring his experiences as a Red Army correspondent to life in gripping narratives.

 

  • Whereas U.S. generations view this war broadly within our culture as one of the relatively few just wars in our history and one fought by the “greatest generation,” the Russian view is more likely to be much more complicated and represent a range of simultaneous paradoxical views of both triumphal pride in a patriotic war of survival combined with a deeply ingrained view of the unmitigated horrors of total war on their homefront and the decades long costs born by the most “tormented generation,” of which this war was but a capstone in a long line of tragedies. This was a generation that not only suffered the death toll above and all its attendent horrors, but also suffered 20 million+ deaths that happened during the years between the Russian revolution and WWII, suffering and deaths that were a direct result of Stalin’s gulags, terrors and purging of the state and military, and his forcing of peasants onto collective farms that sparked mass arrests and caused horrific famines. For more on the history of Stalin, Stephen Kotkin has impressive and highly readable biographies split into three volumes (the third is still due to be published). Harvest of Sorrow by Robert Conquest is the most moving account I have read on the horrors and mechanisms and causes of the manmade famines. Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipeligo and Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales are the go-to sources of gulag literature.

 

  • The unfortunate Eastern European countries (Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Moldova, Lithuania) caught between Germany and the Soviet Union throughout WWII experienced their own horrors that are relatively neglected in the annals of World War II focus in western societies. The people within these nations suffered from both German conquest, and for these countries’ Jewish citizen- the Final Solution were the ultimate terror, as well as Soviet dominance, oppression, and ultimately the generations-long impact of Iron Curtain that are still with us today. Timothy Snyder’s tragic book Bloodlands is a seminal work on this topic.

 

  • The evil megalomaniac drama that unfolded between Hitler and Stalin leading up to the German invasion of the USSR is worth reading and understanding. The drama includes the non-aggression pact between both nations that bought time and needed resources for both dictators (Hitler time to attempt to knock out Britain and receive grain and commodities from the USSR and for Stalin to build military capacity and capability, mostly to repair his own self-imposed ravages and murders of military leaders, and to get military technology and kit from Germany) followed by years of high stakes maneuvering, drama, misunderstandings, paranoia, and intelligence and spying on a global scale that eventually ended in Hitler’s decision to invade coupled with Stalin’s inconceivable and tin eared miscalculation that Hitler was not going to invade (at least, not yet) that would have massive impacts on the human life toll. Kotkin’s biographies, particularly Volume II, handles this remarkably well, including fascinating ill omens such as Hitler codenaming the invasion “Barbarossa” after a Holy Roman Emperor who drowned during the Crusades because he allegedly wanted to prove his bravery and tenacity by crossing a river in full armor. Another interesting ill omen is brought out in Kotkin’s Volume II is the fact that a bust of Bismarck, that predecessor statesman who united the fragmented German lands through political craftiness and war and whose firm political beliefs was to never instigate a war with Russia, owned by Hitler, was cracked at the neck and hastily and shoddily repaired on the eve of the German attack on the USSR. Not that such omens mattered to Hitler nor would it have changed the outcome, but nobody bothered to tell the Fuhrer of the mistake.

Hopefully these few ideas on a complex and fascinating topic whets a few appetites.

Socialism reduces man to a science experiment; Communism reduces man to a number

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Over the last couple of months I have been reading three distinct books that uniquely and richly deal with a societal and political challenge that is ever before us: the tendency of mankind to place too much hope and power in class of rulers, and the tendency of those rulers to work to assume more power and decision-making authority over the ruled.  The books are 19th Century French Economist Claude Frederic Bastiat’s  The Law, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle. The three books represent authors of different time eras, professional and political experiences, and in a couple of cases, imprisonment and exile. Each powerfully attacks these aforementioned societal and political challenges in such a way that still resonates in the modern Western era given our constant flirtation with socialism and of socialism’s growing popularity as a political response to Trumpist populism. I also find it fascinating and tragic that early prophets such as Bastiat and Dostoevsky foresaw the catastrophes that socialism would bring while Solzhenitsyn lived them. They key question for today is: are we still listening?

I begin with Bastiat from a chronological perspective as well as the fact that he served as an early prophet to the ills of socialism. Bastiat, as a French economist, philosopher, and statesman in France in the mid-1800s, is mostly known for his remarkable intellectual stands against mercantilism and protectionism. He also had to contend and argue against pervasive French dirigiste statism and had plenty of exposure and debates with leading philosophers and legislators who espoused Socialism. As such, he forewarns us of the ills of Socialism extensively in his book The Law. Here are a few notable excerpts:

How is it that the strange idea of making the law produce what it does not contain – prosperity, in a positive sense, wealth, science, religion – should ever have gained ground in the political world? The modern politicians, particularly those of the Socialist school, found their different theories upon one common hypothesis; and surely a more strange, a more presumptuous notion, could never have entered a human brain.

They divide mankind into two parts. Men in general, except one, form the first; the politician himself forms the second, which is by far the most important.

In fact, they begin by supposing that men are devoid of any principle of action, and of any means of discernment in themselves; that they have no initiative; that they are inert matter, passive particles, atoms without impulse; at best vegetation indifferent to its own mode of existence, susceptible of assuming, from an exterior will and hand an infinite number of forms, more or less symmetrical, artistic, and perfected….

…the Socialists look upon mankind as a subject for social experiments…the relations between mankind and the legislator appear to be the same as those that exist between the clay and the potter. Moreover, if they have consented to recognize in the heart of man a capability of action, and in his intellect a faculty of discernment, they have looked upon this gift of God as a fatal one, and thought that mankind, under these two impulses, tended fatally to ruin.

Whilst mankind tends to evil, they incline to good; whilst mankind is advancing towards darkness, they are aspiring to enlightenment; whilst mankind is drawn toward vice, they are attracted by virtue. And, this granted, they demand the assistance of force, by means of which they are to substitute their own tendencies for those of the human race. 

Bastiat has a number of retorts to this tendency of politicians to want to treat mankind as their own science experiment:

Truly it would be well if these visionaries, who think so much of themselves and so little of mankind, who want to renew everything, would only be content with trying to reform themselves, the task would be arduous enough for them…

…One of the strangest phenomena of our time, and one that will probably be a matter of astonishment to our descendants, is the doctrine that is founded upon this triple hypothesis: the radical passiveness of mankind – the omnipotence of the law – the infallibility of the legislator: this is the sacred symbol of the party that proclaims itself exclusively democratic: It is true that it professes to be social. So far as it is democratic, it has unlimited faith in mankind. So far as it is social, it places mankind beneath the mud.

Bastiat’s prescience is a marvel to behold, with the tragic exception to date on the part that descendants would scoff at, rather than continually marvel at, the impossible notion resting upon the triple hypothesis that we can achieve utopia through democratic socialism.

As a French statesmen, social scientist, and economist, one might expect Bastiat to have a great amount to say about the subject of Socialism. I am perhaps even more intrigued by what a 19th Century Tsarist era Russian novelist, once imprisoned and then forced to live in exile for “radicalism” (he joined a circle advocating for abolishing Russian serfdom), had to say on the subject given the horrors that would beset Russia a few decades after his eminence. The themes of anti-radicalism in general is a prominent theme throughout Dostoevsky novels. Recency of reading is perhaps the only reason a certain setting within Crime and Punishment resonates with me at present.  The setting itself is the makings of high drama – an investigator, Porfiry Petrovich, has suspicions of the main character, Raskolnikov, as a committer of a recent murder and is feeling him out in a normal social setting. One particular scene that helps Porfiry set the stage for a line of questioning on who has rights to judge and oppress whom on earth is set up by a debate between the investigator and Raskilnikov’s friend, Razumikhin, in which Porfiry goads him into attacking socialist thought in an attempt to get Raskilnikov’s own thoughts on the matter. It was common for Dostoevsky to speak through his characters. I believe Razumikhin speaks for Dostoevsky when he states this regarding socialists:

Their views are well known: crime is a protest against the abnormality of the social set-up – that alone and nothing more, no other causes are admitted…Hence if society itself is normally set up, all crimes will at once disappear, because there will be no reason for protesting and everyone will instantly become righteous. Nature isn’t taken into account, nature is driven out, nature is not supposed to be! With them, it’s not mankind developing all along in a historical, living way that will finally turn by itself into a normal society, but, on the contrary, a social system, coming out of some mathematical head, will at once organize the whole of mankind and instantly make it righteous and sinless.

One can sense not only Dostoevsky’s cynicism related to the “mathematical head” but also skepticism regarding the desire to use government means and rulers to try to reform and direct society in a vain attempt to eradicate human flaws.

Despite the prophecies of Dostoevksy, one can’t imagine he would have foreseen just how pernicious these “mathematical heads” would become in future Russian generations. These molders of mankind into lumps of clay would, to use Bastiat’s phrase, truly place man into the mud. Or as the statement attributed to Stalin goes, more than treating men as clay, men were treated as millions of broken eggs in a tragic attempt to create an omelette concocted in a “great” mathematician’s head. This tragic reality is captured throughout the corpus of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s works with such masterpieces as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich  and The Gulag Archipelago.  Perhaps there is no work in which Solzhenitsyn displays such profound sadness at a vain attempt at utopia gone horrifically wrong combined with clarity of moral purpose and tragic irony and wit as in his novel, In the First Circle.

The epic novel is far too rich and deep for me to describe in detail here (for a great podcast introduction to the book, visit EconTalk), but some key context: the novel’s name itself belies the artist’s craft and wit – the concept of the “First Circle” was adopted as a literary device from Dante’s Inferno. The first circle of hell was the highest and most painless level of hell in which philosophers and other world notables who did good but without knowing the true God were relegated. Similarly, the novel’s prison settings is the sharaska – a forced work-camp for those Russian political prisoners who had some particular skill (engineers, physicists) that allowed them to serve prison sentences in relatively livable conditions compared to the deprivations of the Siberian gulags.

There is a common chilling theme throughout the book, at one point expressed by one of the free women workers who toil alongside the male prisoners by day – “they (the state) can do anything they want to us.” But specifically to the point in my title, there is a powerful and pithy statement made by one of the prisoners that succinctly captures the essence of the horrors of communism. In this context, as new prisoners are brought into the camp, the speaker says to a fellow prisoner who happens to be a still committed communist:

What century are we living in? Numbers sewn on human beings? Tell me, Lev Grigorievich, is this what you call progress?

Indeed, a broader theme of the book is that everyone is trapped in this system – it is a prison to all, and all within the country are mere numbers, whether one was officially in prison or not. One diplomat in the book tells his sister-in-law:

You see this circle? That’s our country. That’s the first circle. Now here’s the second. A circle with a large diameter. That is mankind at large. You would think that the first forms a part of the second, wouldn’t you? Not in the least! There are barriers of prejudice. Not to mention barbed wire and machine guns. To break through, physically or spiritually, is well-nigh impossible. Which means that mankind, as such, does not exist. There are only fatherlands, everyone’s fatherland is alien to everyone else’s….”

I love when I see parallels of themes between books, and indeed, within In the First Circle  Solzhenitsyn echoes the point in the novel made (and captured above) by Bastiat about “reforming society” and whether we should focus on ourselves or of society:

Where should you start reforming the world? With other people? Or with yourself?

In summary – what I find so moving and powerful about the connections between these works of art from great authors is the healthy and much-needed skepticism regarding whether legislators or autocrats will solve humanity’s ills, that these ills are impossible to remove completely, that the best way to reduce them is setting men at liberty, and the captured fear and progression of what men will do to one another once they hold unrelenting and unlimited power over others – man turns into clay, mud, mathematical, numbers, slaves…

It also goes without saying that I recommend all three books for reading.

 

Quote of the Week – Living Life Amidst Terror

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“It was as if we were living in the tale about Zmey Gorynych, the dragon that required  yearly tribute of twelve fair maidens and twelve young men. One might well wonder how the people in this tale could have carried on, how they could have lived with the knowledge that a dragon would soon be devouring the finest of their children. During those last days in Moscow, however, we realized that they too had been rushing from one little theater to another or hurrying to buy themselves something from which to make a coat or dress. There is nowhere a human being cannot live. With my own eyes I have seen sailors taking a man out onto the ice in order to shoot him – and I have seen the condemned man hopping over puddles to keep his feet dry and turning up his collar to shield his chest from wind. Those few steps were the last steps he would ever take, and instinctively he wanted them to make them as comfortable as possible.

We were no different. We bought ourselves some ‘last scrap’ of fabric. We listened for the last time to the last operetta and the last exquisitely erotic verses. What did it matter whether the verses were good or terrible? All that mattered was not to know, not to be aware – we had to forget that we were being led onto the ice.”

The quote is taken from the first chapter of Teffi’s account, Memories: From Moscow to the Black SeaTeffi, the pen name of Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, was a well-known and celebrated humorist, satirist, and author in early 1900s Russia. Memories is her personal account of her last months spent in Russia and the Ukraine as she fled from the collapse of the Tsarist regime and the Bolshevik revolution, along with most other intellectuals and artists of the era. What makes the narrative unique is that Teffi is largely reticent on political statements and instead puts journalistic focus on the personal narratives and stories of everyone she meets during her harrowing journey. Along the way, she always believes she will make it back to Moscow within a matter of months, but that dream ends years later as she stays in exile in Paris. Memories is described by one reviewer as, “A vividly idiosyncratic account of the disintegration  – moral, political, strategic, – of Tsarist Russia after the Revolution, as alive to the farcical and the ridiculous as it is to the tragic.” I am just diving into the book myself and expect to pull many more such powerful and vivid depictions of what life must have been like for Russians in these perilous and harrowing times. Thus far, Memories is the indispensable book that I am currently reading that I can’t put down.

 

Modern Day Towers of Babel – Lessons from the Soviet Union Man-made Famines

Tower of babel

In the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, mankind busied themselves with building a giant tower stretching up to heaven, united in a common goal of reaching high enough in the firmament to achieve the status of God. In order to prevent this prideful use of mankind’s time and talents, people are thrown into confusion through divine intervention forcing  people to grapple with different language barriers. This ended the quest to build the tower, which presumably required a great degree of communication and collaboration as well as coercion of others to lend their time and energy to the project. It is the latter point on coercion to achieve Utopia that I use as an analogy for something I have been reading a lot about as of late, which is the tragedy that is Russian history; in particular, the part of Russian history that was the quest to build a humanist utopia on earth in the guise of a workers’ paradise ideology of Marxist Communism.

Robert Conquest’s seminal work, The Harvest of Sorrow, provides a chilling narrative of Stalin’s mad and macabre drive to implement his five-year plan to force all peasants into state-owned collective farms. Having recently won a string of political and ideological battles in the wake of Lenin’s death, including the completion of transforming urban areas into economies based largely on state-owned factories, state ownership of the press, orienting the essential arms of the Communist Party under Stalinist control through the appointment of his own self-selected protégés into essential roles in the Party, achieving Stalinist dominance of the essential arms of the Government (Commissariat and Politburo), internal police (OGPU), and military, and with a dictatorship based upon a cult of personality largely established, Stalin opened the next front in the Communist revolution – consolidation of the farms along Communist ideological lines. It is remarkable that up into this point in the late 1920s, a full decade after the initial Bolshevik revolution, that the great mass of Soviet land, population, and largest sector of the Soviet economy, agriculture, was relatively untouched by the maiming and malignant arm of the Soviet state. Indeed, market forces were tolerated in agriculture for a relatively long duration of time under Lenin and subsequently Stalin under something deemed the “New Economic Policy”, or NEP, which was for a season a tactical retreat from an aborted attempt at crash collectivization launched in the early years of the revolution. Unfortunately for the peasants, this lifestyle under market forces was ultimately doomed to be short-lived as it was anathema to Marxist Communist ideology. Stalin is known as many things and has accumulated a wide degree of historical scorn and unflattering sobriquets that are warranted, but less discussed and known is the actual degree to which he truly was a fully committed Marxist more so than he was a practical tactician, which is the typical reputation historians grant to him. The degree to which peasants and farms continued undisturbed and living under market forces was irreconcilable with his dream of a unified and fully communist Soviet Union, and their destruction was always inevitable so long as Stalin had power.

There were largely two high level essential elements of the plan, if the crash and chaotic collectivization that ultimately ensued can be considered planned. The first critical element was fomenting class warfare and eliminating a class of so-called rich peasants. In Communist Party parlance, this class of peasants was pejoratively labeled “kulaks.” While there were numerous official central party attempts to define what a kulak was (tragically comic attempts to define them include the number of cows they owned, acreage tilled and owned, other peasants employed, etc.), in the chaos and opportunism of other peasants seeking to gain kulak assets, opportunism of career ladder seeking party members, internal police officers (OGPU, also know throughout the years as Cheka, NKVD, and KGB), party activists, and sycophants eager to prove their mettle and communist dutifulness, the reach and definition of who would be a kulak was ever-expanding and completely arbitrary and ultimately boiled down to who might be a leader that had the potential to cause trouble for the regime. Thus, “wealthy” peasants, middle class peasants, clergy, and village leaders all got caught into the snare of what occurs when humanity devolves into its most beastly and evil forms. The great irony is that many of the oppressors were far more handsomely paid from their official perches than were the wealthy peasants they were murdering, deporting, and sending off to the gulags of Siberia. The second critical element in the “plan” was to force the remaining peasants into collective farms. The ostensible utopian goal behind the collective farm was the theoretical notion that large industrial farms would produce much more efficiently than small landowners could and the centralized planning would align the needs of the country at large. More malevolently and cynically, the Soviet leaders knew that state collective farms would give them control of the all-important grain that they required to feed their core political base, the urban populations, and to export grain to obtain the needed cash for the state.

The predictable outcome of all of this state-induced crash collectivization was a massive decrease in agricultural production due to the massive deportation, imprisonment, and murder of the Soviet Union’s most productive farmers and ranchers who were mostly located in the Ukraine and the Central Asian steppes, respectively. The disruption that the oppression caused and the lack of incentives the new system created to produce anything more than what your family required were also significant contributing factors. What relatively little products did get extracted out of the peasants was more prone to rot on trains and in warehouses due to Soviet government incompetence than it was to get put into the mouths of Soviet citizens, further exacerbating the problems in a tragically ironic way. Needless to say, the offshoot was to further scapegoat ever-growing numbers of kulak saboteurs and calls from the central planners to extract more in the form of expropriated grain requisitions from the peasants, which often had the effect of not leaving families with enough grain to even feed themselves. At one point in this terror, the Soviet government relied upon newly deputized Communist activists that were largely city dwellers to descend upon the farms to discover grain wherever they could and forcibly take it from the peasants with the aid of OGPU officers.  These 25-thousanders, as they were called after the approximate number of them that were commissioned for the task, had little knowledge of agriculture, but what they possessed in abject ignorance they made up for in their fervent desire to do their part to build the workers’ utopia. They were easily whipped into a mob mentality frenzy based upon a notion that anyone that opposed them was an enemy of the state and inimical to the necessary changes that the revolution needed in order to complete its idealistic aims. One of their members, who would defect decades later, recounts a speech chronicled in Conquest’s book that was given to the 25-thousanders by a Party member who addressed them in order to provide direction on the terror that they were to unleash on the countryside.

The local village authorities need an injection of Bolshevik iron. That’s why we are sending you. You must assume your duties with a feeling of the strictest Party responsibility, without whimpering, without any rotten liberalism. Throw your bourgeois humanitarianism out of the window and act like Bolsheviks worthy of Comrade Stalin. Beat down the kulak agent wherever he raises his head. It’s war – it’s them or it’s us! The last decayed remnant of capitalist farming must be wiped out at any cost!

Secondly, comrades, it is absolutely necessary to fulfill the government’s plan for grain delivery. The kulaks and even some middle and poor peasants are not giving up their grain. They are sabotaging Party policy. And the local authorities sometimes waver and show weakness. Your job is to get the grain at any price. Pump it out of them, wherever it is hidden, in ovens, under beds, in cellars or buried away in back yards.

Through you, the Party brigades, the villages must learn the meaning of Bolshevik firmness. You must find the grain and you will find it. It’s a challenge to the last shred of your initiative and to your Chekist spirit. Don’t be afraid of taking extreme measures. The Party stands four-square behind you. Comrade Stalin expects it of you. It’s a life and death struggle; better to do too much and not enough.

Your third important task is to complete the threshing of the grain, to repair the tools, ploughs, tractors, reapers, and other equipment.

The class struggle in the village has taken the sharpest forms. This is no time for squeamishness or rotten sentimentality. Kulak agents are masking themselves and getting into the collective farms where they sabotage the work and kill the livestock. What’s required from you is Bolshevik alertness, intransigence, and courage. I am sure you will carry out the instructions of the Party and the directives of our beloved Leader.

Carry out the instructions of the dear leader is indeed what was done. According to Conquest’s research and analysis at the time, close to 5 million so-called kulaks and their family members were killed or sent to the Gulags where many, including wives and children, would go on to perish. As a result of the predictable subsequent man-made famine, another estimated 10 million would go on to die in the following years. What is striking is that at the time of Conquest’s forecasts and estimates (made in the 50s), Western media outlets lampooned the account as overly sensationalized and hyper-critical of Stalin and the Soviet system. As it turned out, once the Soviet archives were opened in their entirety decades later, Conquest’s estimates proved to be remarkably prescient.

My own interest in these accounts is that I am often fascinated, humbled, and terrified by the conditions that led to such a human created humanitarian crisis. The ultimate human paradox is the great good that we are capable of, but also the tremendous evil that we are equally capable of. I don’t get the sense that any culture, society, or ethnicity is immune to such deprivations.  While I don’t think the conditions are ripe for such a disaster in many Western nations and feel compelled to ward off charges of being an alarmist, it is still a valuable lesson of the arrogance of building utopias on the backs of oppressed and coerced individuals. Individual liberties and freedoms are essential elements that we should cherish dearly, even if it means we pass up some immediate expedient aim and benefit that would force us to give them up.  Conquest chronicles another party member and activist who participated in the actions against the peasants and who would go on to later write that,

We were deceived because we wanted to be deceived. We believed so strongly in communism that we were prepared to accept any crime if it was glossed over with the least bit of communist phraseology…confronted by something unpleasant, we compelled ourselves to believe that it was an isolated phenomenon and that on the whole the country’s state of affairs was just as the party described it…in other words, just as it was supposed to be according to communist theory.

This quote is classic and could be applied to any urge to participate in mob mentality and populist urges, either from the political far right or left. Oppression and catastrophe really take nothing more than a passionate minority that believes that all that stands in the way between them and a paradise on the other side is a smaller minority that deserves to be trampled, coupled with a largely complicit mass majority that stands silent while atrocities are committed in the vain hope that they won’t be touched. Evil can be whitewashed and rationalized by us all if it is deemed a necessary act to bring about a hoped for greater good or paradise.

The modern-day Tower of Babel is not a tower reaching up to the heaven, it is a belief that an institution of the state can create better conditions for all, even if it means destroying rights of the few. There are much less malevolent forms of this urge in the Western world today, but the same desire to build paternalistic utopian societies that aim hopelessly to improve the lot of the majority, even if it means expropriating the property and wealth of the minority, is still something that we should be extremely careful with and which we see as prevailing themes in much of the drive for proposed “free” goods in higher education and healthcare, to name just a couple of issues. To borrow from Milton Friedman, “Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.”

“Virginia is Horrible; Send Cheese”

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The American imagination of early settlements is often misconstrued as rather glamorous affairs of hearty British subjects seeking freedom and prosperous land ownership coupled with progress and harmony amongst the settlers and the American natives. The picture above representing this mythical view could have come from just about any American school account of the period. I delighted in reading an actual account from rarely discovered writings of one such settler in the Virginian colony in the 1600s that disabuses this notion entirely. As the editor of thee (allow me some Olde English flourishes given the topic, all right?) article states,  “Life in early colonial Virginia was as nasty, brutish, and short as it got for seventeenth-century Englishmen, as shown in the sufferings of Richard Frethorne.”

The life of this young man, who was sent to serve as an indentured servant by his parents in order to pay off family debts, makes paying off student loans look rather easy in comparison. Stealing, starvation, thirst, hard labor, exploitation, loneliness, despair, and constant attacks from natives are the hallmark of the wretched life of the early American settler. It is highly worth the read for lovers of English colonial and American history to get a better appreciation of our highly inauspicious origins.

“Breaking up to Stay Together – Iraq in Pieces”

Iraq
Courtesy of Washington Post

A recent Foreign Affairs article by  poses a tremendously thought provoking question of whether Iraq should break apart based upon sectarian lines – Sunni, Kurdish, and Shia. The article provides a great amount of helpful historical context as well as great insights into how poisoned the relationships between Shia, Sunni, Kurds, secularists, and assorted minorities (mostly decimated by this point) have become.

Mr. Khedery quotes the first monarch of Iraq, King Faisal, in what seems to be a prescient observation,

With my heart filled with sadness, I have to say that it is my belief that there is no Iraqi people inside Iraq. There are only diverse groups with no national sentiments. They are filled with superstitious and false religious traditions with no common grounds between them. They easily accept rumors and are prone to chaos, prepared always to revolt against any government.

I have to believe that such a formal partition would be quite chaotic and bloody, with renewed and fueled hatreds as the groups try to stake out new boundaries and access to oil resources. In addition, protection of the rule of law and the safety of minorities during such a chaotic transition stage would be very difficult. Still, such a partition seems inevitable in time. If Iraq is to remain a national polity, it seems it will do so under a federalist shell with tremendous political power devolved to de facto autonomous regions.

Astonishing moments in history – Kristallnacht and The Fall of the Berlin Wall

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A Jewish-owned shop in Berlin after the Nazi riots of Nov. 9, 1938. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGESberlin20wall20freedom

November 9th and 10th serve as anniversaries of remarkable and astonishing events in global history, Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass) and The Fall of the Berlin Wall, respectively.  Each of these are inseparably connected to the world’s greatest self-inflicted tragedies of Nazism and World War II and its aftermath. These events stand at opposite poles of a spectrum that reveals mankind’s remarkable capacity for horrific and unspeakable acts as well as our unique capacity for human kindness, dignity, and the yearning for individual freedom. We are indeed a strange species with our seeming unbounded capacity for both evil and good that these events represent.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal puts one into the Kristallnacht events through the eyes of a child that suddenly is faced with certain death. For those not familiar with this historical event, it can best be summarized as a Nazi organized pogrom on Jews in Germany and the first mass arrest and submission of thousands of Jews to concentration camps. In essence, it was the launch of the Holocaust, as this 1988 newscast presents. One of the most harrowing and memorable lines is when the author states, “A group of Berliners said a stain on the street was a Jew’s blood. Even now I can hear their laughter.” When looking at these events from the lens of impartial spectator, one confronts the inevitable uncomfortable question of what we ourselves would have been like in those circumstances. Would we have had the courage to stand up for the oppressed and for what is right, even upon pain of death? Or would we too have joined the masses in complicity – just keeping our heads down with the common practiced art of not causing trouble or receiving unwanted attention, a macabre sense of thankfulness that it is someone else and not us being subjected to acts of violence. Even worse, would we be perpetrators of unspeakable violence and claim that we were, “just following orders.”

The author somberly observes that we have our own Kristallnacht analogous crisis happening right under our noses in which we can be accused of this same baleful complicity in the events in Syria and across the rest of ISIS dominated Middle East. He challenges us with this statement, “After nearly 75 years in the U.S., I still am stirred by the thought of American freedom—so precious and thrilling that I cannot imagine life without it. In the shadow of the Kristallnacht anniversary, I see that the Christian communities of the Middle East are being savaged by Islamic terrorists. Men are publicly beheaded, women condemned to acts of depravity, and churches destroyed. Who in our government has forcefully spoken out to stop this human tragedy? Who will throw the Christians of the Middle East a lifeline? I pray that our nation will.”

A group of Berliners said a stain on the street was a Jew’s blood. Even now I can hear their laughter.

Contrast the horror of Kristallnacht with the joy and optimism of the Fall of The Berlin Wall, one of the final vestiges of misplaced hopes in dreams of the Communist utopia being chipped away bit by bit with hammers and chisels, an act that served as a visceral metaphor for the yearning for common freedom and common brotherhood. One can almost emotionally join the jubilation by watching newscasts that chronicled the events in real time. We can never imagine a proper recompense for the events of the Holocaust, as the tell-tale signs of the terrors of the Holocaust still linger about us and much of Europe has never recovered their Jewish populations,  but it is striking nonetheless to think about young Berliners, particularly those on the Eastern side of it, bravely standing in the face of tyranny in their own defiant symbolic act in support of freedom and human dignity contrasted with the perpetrated violence and complicity of their forebearers. One can only hope and pray that we are a species capable of moving forward and not repeating the evils of the past, much like the microcosm of Berlin represents. Sadly, as the events of the Middle East indicate and other atrocities that we willingly visit upon mankind (I would argue abortion is one of those evils, but that is a topic for a different day), we always seem to have evil acts for which we are complicit at hand.