Bibi Tells It Like It Is (Not)

 

(The five statements in this piece come from Dale Sprusansky, “Netanyahu’s AIPAC Speech: 5 Lies,” Washington Report On Middle East Affairs, May 2014, pp. 36-37.)

 

On March 4 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Natanyahu gave a speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Israel’s powerful lobbying organization. One certainly does not expect an Israeli politician speaking to AIPAC to present a completely objective view, but Bibi’s total disregard for facts is breathtaking. The sad fact of course is how many members of the US Congress believe the Prime Minister’s words, which he himself clearly knows to be lies.

 
In the Middle East bludgeoned by butchery and barbarism, Israel is humane; Israel is compassionate. Israel is a force for good.”

 

"Please like me."

“Please like me.”

Bibi gives the salute to the Volksgenossen

Bibi gives the salute to the Volksgenossen

No one can deny that the Middle East is indeed awash with “butchery and barbarism,” and Syria’s Bashir Assad is setting the bar to new heights. But for any sane person to honestly describe Israel as “humane” is absolutely absurd. Can the treatment of Palestinians, especially in the vast open air prison of Gaza, be considered humane and compassionate? Her actions in operations like Cast Lead in Gaza would be described as “barbarism” by most civilized people, and the constant violation of international covenants, particularly the colonization of the West Bank, is in my opinion barbaric according to the established norms of the post-WW II world. “Butchery” is certainly not a term that can be generally associated with Israel, but the slaughter in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in 1982, enabled and supported by the Israeli army, is aptly described by the word. And if Israel is anyway a force for good, it is only in contrast to the despicable regimes that inhabit the region.

 
“(Israel has) values that move us to treat sick Palestinians, thousands of them from Gaza. They come to our hospitals. We treat them despite the fact that terrorists from Gaza hurl thousands of rockets at our cities.”

 
Israelis may have such values, but the state of Israel manifestly does not. Some Palestinians have found help in Israeli hospitals, but because of the extreme difficulties involved in crossing into Israel, far more sick and desperate people are denied any such succor. For Netanyahu to mention “values” in the same sentence as “Gaza” is a sick joke. The world – excepting of course the US – recognizes Gaza as little more than a huge prison camp, sealed off from the world and regularly assaulted by one of the strongest militaries on the planet. Because of the Israeli blockade, people are actually suffering severe malnutrition, and Palestinian public facilities that patently have nothing to do with any ability to attack Israel are regularly destroyed. For Hamas or whoever to shoot missiles into Israel is barbaric, but consider the whole picture. In the last seven years Palestinians in Gaza have fired some 9000 usually ineffective rockets at Israel; in two years, 2005-2006, Israel fired 15,000 very effective shells into Gaza. And there are the ever wildly unequal casualties: in the period since 2008 30 Israeli civilians have been killed, as opposed to 1867 Palestinians in Gaza.

 
“Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, where the civil rights of all citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike, are guaranteed.”

 
Even if Israel did not openly discriminate against non-Jewish citizens, this would still be a ludicrous statement. How is it possible for a state, 20% of whose citizens are not Jewish, to be both a “Jewish state” and a democracy? If the term is not completely meaningless, there must be discrimination: if it is a Jewish state, then the implication is that Jewish citizens are somehow more suitable than non-Jewish, that this is their state. And the fact is that Arab citizens are indeed discriminated against, both unofficially – and now with increasing violence – and officially. How could it not be? Israel is in a virtual state of war with the inhabitants of Gaza and the West Bank and seizing more and more Palestinian land. How are the Palestinians of Israel, most of whom have relatives in the occupied territories, supposed to respond to these actions of “their” government? Meanwhile, Arab ghettos have become a prominent feature of the Israeli landscape. I have personally witnessed this, and that was twenty years ago.

 
There are perhaps a hundred “unregistered” Arab villages in Israel, recognized as illegal, though they have been there for centuries. The inhabitants cannot get public services or building permits, which means any repairs to a home invites the arrival of the government bulldozers. Meanwhile, their ancestral lands are being appropriated by Jewish communities, some of which openly declare “Jews only,” apparently missing the incredible irony. The legal Center for Arab Minority Rights identifies some 50 or more laws that openly discriminate against Palestinian citizens. Most damning, however, 93% of the land in Israel is owned by the state or quasi-state entities, and non-Jews cannot legally buy or lease that land. It is after all a Jewish state.

 
Consider Avigdor Lieberman, the thug who is currently Minister of Foreign Affairs. He has proposed a two state plan that would not only incorporate West Bank Jewish settlements as part of Israel, but also assign some Israeli Arab areas to the Palestinian state. So much for being a citizen. He believes that Arab members of the Knesset who even speak to Hamas are terrorists and should be executed. He would also like all Israeli citizens to swear an oath of loyalty or lose their citizenship, demonstrating, I suppose, that he is an equal opportunity fascist.

Reichsminister Lieberman

Reichsminister Lieberman

“Israel, the one country in the Middle East that protects Christians and protects the right of worship for everyone.”

 
Well, the Turks might disagree with this proposition, and the Syrian Christian community has enjoyed the protection of the Assad government, though certainly not because of any humanitarian concerns. The Palestinian Christian community, meanwhile, has been steadily declining, and it is clear that the Israeli occupation is at least partly responsible. Access to the holy sites in Jerusalem is apparently not part of Netanyahu’s definition of “right of worship,” since it is extremely difficult for non-Israeli Palestinians to obtain a permit to visit the holy city. It is also indisputable that Israeli Jews are steadily taking over the Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, and there seems little concern for the religious concerns of non-Jews. The Ministry of Religious Affairs, in pursuance of 1967 law for the protection of holy sites, has designated 135 Jewish sites and not a single one for other religions. See also Ironies from Israel #1: Archeological Hypocrisy.

Welcome to Bethlehem

Welcome to Bethlehem

“(Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon) would open up a Pandora’s box of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and around the world.”

 
This is not so much a lie as an incredible exercise in hypocrisy. Leaving aside the consideration that it is not entirely clear that Iran is dead set on obtaining a weapon, the fact is that aside from Pakistan the only nuclear power in the Middle East is Israel. Everyone knows this, but the US and Israel play a stupid game of never mentioning it – or that Israel had actually cooperated with apartheid South Africa in weapons development. And while Washington is badgering everyone in the Middle East to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran has, no American politician dares even bring up the subject in the case of Israel. Given Israel’s history of doing whatever she pleases, regardless of international law, it might be considered understandable if places like Iran were a bit paranoid. Admittedly there is some truth concerning proliferation: a Shiite bomb in Iran could easily drive the Sunni Gulf autocracies to start shopping around, as if the ruling elites in Teheran could possibly be stupid enough to start threatening a nuclear strike. Given the strength of its military and the unqualified support of the US, it is certainly questionable that Israel requires a nuclear arsenal, and a first step in dealing with Iran might be simply admitting that Israel actually possesses such weapons. But given the attitude of Washington, that will never happen.

 
Sprusansky ends his article with “The time is coming when lies no longer will suffice.” Given the growing detachment of the American Congress from reality, that time is likely to be very far off indeed.

American Exceptionalism #2: College Athletics

Other countries of course have intercollegiate athletics, but nowhere are they as popular, important and corrupting as in the United States.  It is not at all clear how athletics became so ensconced in the American university, but certainly a major factor is the fact that American schools are essentially businesses.  Even state institutions, which receive part of their funding from the state government, are dependent upon tuition and donations, and there is a belief that a high profile sports program will attract more students and contributions.  That the average student is moved by this is very questionable, but alumni donors are clearly influenced by athletic success.  In fact, to many in the community the university is nothing more than its football and basketball teams.  Further, because of television revenues, successful football and basketball programs can earn huge amounts of money, particularly in the post-season.  In 2013 March Madness, the college basketball playoffs, earned $1.15 billion in ad revenue, and $200 million was divided up among the participating schools.  And the general economic impact is mind boggling: it is estimated that the 2014 March Madness generated $13 billion in revenues.

 

 

The National Football League and the National Basketball Association are also driving forces, since it is the universities that feed new players into the professional teams.  The other major American sport, baseball, also draws players, but college level baseball is virtually a minor sport compared to football and basketball, and professional baseball has a system of minor league teams as a feeder system.  For the NFL and the NBA American universities are the minor leagues, the farm clubs, and they cost the professional teams nothing.  They cost the schools a lot.

The real face of the American university

The real face of the American university

Basketball and especially football programs are expensive.  Equipment, travel and facility costs are huge, and because of their popularity, even in the case of low profile and losing teams, there is constant pressure to upgrade those facilities.  Then there are the coaches, who are becoming more and more expensive, often regardless of success.   Consider the state schools.  Last year the highest paid state employee in 47 of the 50 states was with either a football or a basketball coach.  At my former institution, the University of New Mexico, a low quality school in a very poor state, the 2014 base salary (not including bonuses and perks) of the basketball coach, Craig Neal, is roughly $750,000.  The football coach for 2009 and 2010, Mike Locksley, also earned $750,000 a year and won exactly two games.  He was fired early in the 2011 season, despite the huge buyouts that are typically part of coaching contracts.  Coincidentally, as a successful faculty member for thirty-one years, I earned a grand total of approximately $750,000.

 

 

Very few schools, even in the high-profile conferences, earn a profit from athletics, and those that do pump it back into their athletic programs.  Meanwhile, the vast majority of college football and basketball programs do not earn enough revenue to even support themselves, and since the money spent on minor sports – and to a degree women’s sports – is miniscule, those dollars must come from the general fund of the university.  This is one part of the corrupting influence.  Resources that would have been used in support of what one might suppose is the essential mission of the university, education, are drained off by football and basketball.  And this is ultimately to the benefit the multi-billion dollar NFL and NBA, who contribute absolutely nothing.  Incidentally, while the thirty-two teams in the NFL are taxpaying businesses, the NFL itself is a non-profit tax exempt organization, yet one that paid commissioner Roger Goodell $44.2 million.

 

 

Because American schools require students to pay tuition and sundry fees, promising “student” athletes can be paid with scholarships, which represent considerable sums, given the skyrocketing cost to attend an American university, especially the private institutions.  Adding equipment, travel and other expenses dramatically raises the cost to the school.  Consider these expenditures in the six most important football conferences: the cost per student is $10,000 to $20,000; the cost per athlete is $42,000 to $164,000.  And insult is added to injury inasmuch as most of the “student” athletes are students in name only, only going through the motions of attending classes and supported by teams of personal tutors.  Football and basketball stars also get preferential treatment, often engaging in behaviors that would get actual students thrown out of the institution.  One frequently hears coaches explaining such things as shoplifting and drunken driving with phrases such as “blowing off steam,” as if outright criminality was normal for a twenty year old.

 

 

Then there are the athletes themselves, who are exploited by the universities to a degree not seen since the early days of the industrial revolution.  They do get a free ride at increasingly expensive schools, but inasmuch as very few acquire a real education (the graduation rate for football and basketball players is inevitably well below that of students and frequently below 50%) this is a benefit of questionable value.  Meanwhile, they are spending huge amounts of their time earning money for their institutions, most particularly to pay the generally fat salaries of athletic personnel, especially coaches, who may be making in one year more money than most of them will see in a lifetime.  Playing for an NFL or NBA team of course means earning millions, but only a tiny percentage of college players will be drafted into the professional ranks.  It is estimated that the average market value of top level college football and basketball players is well over $100,000, which means the schools are getting an incredible deal.  Further, with the merchandising of such things as jerseys a university can make huge amounts of money off an individual player, who is barred from receiving any of it.

 

 

The universities are obviously quite pleased with the system and have resisted all attempts to provide actual compensation to their athletes, insisting that they are not workers but students.  In fact they are workers, employed in programs that can generate millions in revenues and are every bit as professional as the teams they aspire to join.  The University of Alabama football team, for example, is considered to have a market value greater than any of the teams in the National Hockey League.  And the National Collegiate Athletic Association is losing its grip, especially in football, as schools are acting on their own to rearrange conferences in order generate more money.

Alabama - the most important school in America

Alabama – the most important school in America

 

 

The whole sham edifice of college athletics is beginning to crumble, however.  Last month the National Labor Relations Board agreed with football players at Northwestern University that they are indeed employees and entitled to engage in collective bargaining.  This decision applies only to private schools, but state schools are almost certain to follow, particularly since the major football powers are state institutions, and the issue may well go to the Supreme Court.  But while this development may clear away the obvious nonsense of amateur athletics and student athletes, it is likely to only further injure the American university.  Football and basketball will become an even more important facet of the university and suck up even more resources, as schools compete for good players by offering them more money.

 

 

College sports may have once had some vague relationship to higher education – sportsmanship and all that – but that is gone forever.  In an institution that is already a business, unlike higher education in the rest of the industrial democracies, sports have become another and growing aspect of that business, one that has absolutely nothing to do with education.  The American university is already pricing itself beyond the reach of most young Americans, supporting ever larger and more expensive administrative structures, and football and basketball are another growing and irrelevant drain on resources.  On the other hand, the American public school system is failing so dramatically that perhaps we no longer need higher education.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stuff from Way Back #28: Hey, Buddy, Can You Spare a Myth?

The early parts of the Biblical book of Genesis involve a great deal of water, which might seem odd in the mythic tradition of a society that emerged and evolved in the relatively arid environs of Palestine. There is of course the Mediterranean Sea, but the land itself is very dry, depending for the most part on rainfall for agriculture. The local rivers are mere rivulets compared to the Tigris and Euphrates and the Nile, which river systems witnessed the birth of the first urban civilizations, Sumer and Old Kingdom Egypt. Yet the creation story in Genesis begins with a watery chaos, and later the first human society is destroyed in a world-wide flood, a somewhat unlikely proposition in a land that experienced only the very ephemeral flash floods common to desert regions. Such stories would make much more sense in the hydraulic societies of Mesopotamia and Egypt.

 

And indeed in the creation myths of these areas the emergence of the familiar universe involved aquatic beginnings. For the Egyptians the process was peaceful, reflecting the confidence of a culture whose world-view was shaped by an isolated, secure, bountiful and essentially unchanging environment. The primeval hill arose from the waters, and there Atum (or Ptah), a self-created god, generated other deities by spitting out or ejaculating them or in a later more sophisticated account simply speaking their names. They in turn produced more gods and ultimately men in an ordered world without end.

Atum

Atum

The Sumerians, on the other hand, lived in a far less hospitable environment: the Tigris and the Euphrates, unlike the Nile, were wild unpredictable rivers, there were extremes of weather and life was very insecure because of the constant warfare among the city-states and the periodic incursions of barbarians. Consequently, in their view (and that of subsequent societies in the region) creation was a struggle, and the forces of order under Enlil (later Marduk) had to wage an epic battle against Tiamat, the chaotic salt waters. Further, creation was not necessarily permanent and could collapse back into chaos, just as the Sumero-Babylonian societies were continually threatened with natural and man-made catastrophe.

Water world

Sumer

 

Enlil

Enlil

The Sumero-Babylonian tradition also features a global flood, a tale so ubiquitous that some actually hold the utterly nonsensical idea that there was indeed a planetary deluge. Southern Iraq, the location of Sumer, was frequently flooded by the Tigris and Euphrates overflowing their banks and the sea driven in by storms, natural disasters that early on gave rise to the tradition of a universal flood. Significantly, the Egyptians did not produce such a story, since while the Nile did flood, it did so on a regular annual basis, rejuvenating the farmland rather than creating havoc. Sumer was a land of natural and human conflict; Egypt was not.

 

Here then is the source of all that Biblical water. With the rise of empires, such as the Babylonian and Assyrian, communications between the Land of the Two Rivers and Syria and Palestine on the Mediterranean coast were greatly enhanced, and along with goods and people ideas and tales traveled eat and west. The story of Abraham coming from Ur, the most important of the Sumerian cities, is a reflection of this. As the Yahwists, the future Hebrews, absorbed Canaanite groups, many of the local traditions of these peoples were woven into the evolving tapestry of early Hebrew history. Very probably a group that had come from the east preserved a memory of its origins, and the birthplace of Abraham, himself a local cult figure from Hebron, was transferred to Ur. Thus the watery story from the Sumero-Babylonian creation epic, Enuma elish, traveled west to become, with many alterations, part of the mythic tradition of a distinctly non-watery people.

 

So also did the flood story make its way to the Hebrews. The tale is most fully recounted in the epic of Gilgamesh, the tablets of which date from the reign of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in the seventh century BC, but there is a Sumerian version from about 1700 BC, and it undoubtedly draws upon even earlier accounts. Long ago the gods sent a flood to destroy mankind, but the god Ea (Enki) took pity and warned Utnapishtim (Ziusudra in the Sumerian version) of Shuruppak to build a huge boat. He did so, and when the flood came, he boarded with his family and clan and “the beasts and the birds.” But the gods relented and the deluge ended, and the ark came to rest on Mt. Nimush. Utnapishtim released a “watch-bird,” which returned, then a swallow, which also returned, and finally a raven, which did not. Humanity was saved, and Utnapishtim was given the gift of eternal life.

 

Utnapishtim

Utnapishtim

Ea/Enki

Ea/Enki

And so a group of people in Palestine, who would never have seen any real flood, came to accept a universal deluge as part of their mythic history. That oral tradition was ultimately recorded and became part of the Hebrew testament, later accepted as valid by Christianity and Islam. As a result for almost two millennia half the population of the planet believed in the literal truth of a story created by a “pagan” people they had never heard of and would despise as unbelievers if they had. Even today there are those who ignore the overwhelming and obvious evidence of science, Biblical analysis and common sense and insist on the historicity of a flood, diligently searching the mountainous interior of Anatolia for traces of the ark of Ziusudra/Utnapishtim/Noah.

Rare photo of Noah

Rare photo of Noah

A sucker born every minute

A sucker born every minute

Joshua Redux

The current Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, seems the embodiment of intransigence and resistance when it comes to the West Bank and peace with the Palestinians, but he appears almost liberal when compared to his Economics Minister, Naftali Bennett. Bennett is head of the extremist Jewish Home party, the third largest group within the coalition currently controlling the government, and he is willing to bring that government down should “Bibi” continue showing such weakness. His is a sweeping mission: “My task is to keep Judaism alive, to make it stronger and to fight its enemies.” Inasmuch as slightly more than half of world Jewry lives outside Israel, his mission statement might be a bit too sweeping, but conservative Israeli politicians seem to feel that Israel is Judaism.

Joshua Redux

Joshua Redux

In his struggle Bennett’s main concern is the West Bank, the territory that in the eyes of the world is to become the Palestinian state. In the eyes of Bennett, however, the West Bank is Israel. He actually has a point, at least to the extent that this territory was once Judea and Samaria, the heart of ancient Israel. But that was a couple of millennia ago, and one can hardly claim, as he does, that the land has belonged to the Jews for 3000 years. There have certainly been Jews living in the area all that time, but the state of Israel disappeared in antiquity and until the creation of modern Israel Jews were a minority. If any group can claim the land on the basis of continuous habitation, it would be the Arabs. Bennett’s reply to this argument is simple: anyone who makes it does not understand history, at least history as he imagines it. Thus, referring to the Israeli “occupation” of the West Bank is completely wrong, because, as Bennett puts it, “You can’t occupy your own land.”

 

 

This is of course nonsense, and in any case, claiming territory on the basis of prior occupation, especially so long ago, is an extremely dangerous principle. But Bennett would doubtless point out that Israel is a special case because of the history of the Jews and especially the Holocaust, a proposition perhaps more palatable to the West because ancient Israel and its “history” are so important to Christianity. Special case or not, the problem is that people who are not Jews have been living on this land for more than a thousand years and are wondering why they must be displaced because of the actions and guilt of the West. Palestine was manifestly not, as the Zionist catchphrase put it, “a land without a people,” and in 1948 the Palestinians saw half of their homeland given to the Jews by an international organization created and dominated by a country whose President was anxious to secure the American Jewish vote for his reelection.

armed non-people

armed non-people

But historical fact notwithstanding, Bennett, like many others, fervently believes Judea and Samaria are part of Israel, and consequently, settling Israeli citizens in the West Bank, seen as a gross violation of international law by the rest of the planet (quietly by the US), is quite proper. And like the Lord of Hosts once smiting the idol worshippers in the land He gave unto His people, there is the Israeli Defense Force, smiting their modern enemies, though they are no longer idol worshippers. These are the Chosen People, chosen a second time by the United States, the closest thing earth now has to a Judge of the Nations. The world is treating Israel unfairly, according to Bennett, an ironic supposition given that under the protection of the United States Israel is permitted behavior condemned by international covenants (which we are pledged to uphold).

 
Bennett believes time is on his side since the settlement program, despite the (empty) objections of the Washington, is actually accelerating, and every Israeli colonist is, as they say, a fact on the ground. There are already more than a half million Israelis (including almost half the ministers in the Netanyahu cabinet) living in the West Bank; send in enough and it is Israel, regardless of quibbles about silly international law. But Bennett is not an unreasonable man and is willing to compromise. Israel will annex only Area C, which is to say, 68% of Palestinian territory, and the Arab inhabitants (180,000) will be offered the blatantly second class citizenship already enjoyed by their cousins in Israel proper. The other 32% of the West Bank will be administered by a toothless Palestinian Authority, protected of course by the Israeli Defense Force and Shin Bet, the Israeli secret police. This sounds a lot like the Generalgouvernment, the Nazi administrative structure that ruled Poland. And sooner or later the entire area would almost surely be annexed.

Apartheid plan

Apartheid plan

Bennett and friends apparently do not see the underlying problem in all this – or they simply do not care. Apart from the fact that outright annexation of that much territory, acquired through conquest, is likely to be difficult for even ever compliant Washington to swallow, Israel would then control a huge and ever growing Arab population, confined to obvious Bantustans. Not only would this guarantee eternal hostility and instability, but Israel would be not just a Jewish state but also an Apartheid state. On the other hand, so long as the United States puts up with it, what do the Israelis care what the world thinks? The Palestinians are doomed. Where are the Romans when you need them?

 

 

(I just discovered a related news item regarding the West Bank, one that demonstrates the strength of Israel in American politics.  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was speaking before the Republican Jewish Coalition and happened to refer to the West Bank as “occupied territory,” which characterization did not please the crowd.  He promptly apologized to billionaire Zionist Sheldon Adelson for his “misstatement,” though of course the West Bank is as much occupied territory as Poland was under the Germans.  The UN resolution of 1947 created the state of Israel, and the West Bank and Jerusalem were not part of that state.  That the Arabs did not accept the partition is irrelevant; the resolution also created a Palestinian state, the territory of which Israel is now occupying (and settling).  And the American media?  A former White House hack, Bill Burton, responded to a question from Candy Crowley of CNN by saying that the remark showed that Christie is “not on top of his game,” which is perhaps true if he dared to speak the truth to this particular audience.  But Crowley then told viewers that presidential candidates are “all going to make really stupid mistakes, which that was one.”  She could not be bothered to even mention that this “really stupid mistake” involved stating a fact.)

 

 

And question it they did. Former Deputy White House Press Secretary Bill Burton told CNN’s Candy Crowley on Sunday that Christie’s remark is “the sort of thing that shows he’s not on top of his game like you need to be when you’re a presidential candidate.” Instead of pointing out the absurdity of Burton’s statement, Crowley validated his point, saying, “They’re [presidential candidates] all going to make really stupid mistakes, which that was one.” Just like that, the self-described “most trusted name in news” assured viewers that there is no Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Stuff from Way Back #27: Achilles and Aeneas, Alike and Unlike

he Greeks and Romans are, at least since the Renaissance, inevitably associated with one another and clearly differentiated from the Near Eastern societies that preceded them and the barbarian societies that succeeded the collapse of the Roman Empire. They constitute Classical history/antiquity/society, their architecture, arts and languages are Classical and their literature constitutes the Classics; the two millennia of urban civilization before them are pre-Classical. And in many ways Roman civilization appears to be simply Greek society translated into Latin. The two societies do indeed constitute a recognizable and unique period of history, easily distinguished from what came before and what came after, yet the two peoples were very different in character, which accounts for the obvious differences in their histories. The Greeks were the Beatles of antiquity, dabbling in everything and pumping their genius into almost every aspect of culture and politics; the Romans were the Rolling Stones, incredibly good at one thing, the hard-driving rock and blues of the maintenance and expansion of power.

Romans

Romans

Greeks

Greeks

Originally barbarian cousins in the extensive Indo-European migrations of the second millennium, both peoples began with roughly the same social and political institutions, common, it seems, to all the Indo-Europeans, at least while they are still on the move. Most critically, this included a weak kinship and the tradition of an informal assembly of warriors that heard and advised the king and was theoretically the source of his authority, an idea radically different from the sophisticated kingships of Egypt and Asia, which derived their authority from heaven. The Greeks and Latins would be the only groups that developed agriculturally based urban societies without losing these core political institutions characteristic of their hunting and gathering past and would consequently be the only ones to evolve actual constitutional polities in which the power exercised by the state was considered to derived from the people, at least in theory.
This accounts for the remarkably parallel political development of the Greek and Latin city-states from petty tribal kingships to sophisticated democratic republics. The driving engines behind this were the changing economic environment, as growing wealth produced new economic elites that challenged the traditional arrangements, and the emergence of the citizen army, which gave increasing reality to the old notion that the people were at the root of political power. Thus the Latin and Greek proto-cities eliminated their kings and established the basic mechanisms of the constitutional state: precisely defined law, citizen assemblies and elective limited term magistracies. With as many as a thousand independent city-states the Greeks had a larger social laboratory and produced in some cases the most complete democracies the world has ever seen, whereas in Italy the dominance of Rome over the other Latin towns resulted in a single powerful city-state, Rome.
But there were differences, some of them profound. The Greek kingship apparently withered away over a period of centuries during the Greek Dark Age, while the Romans clearly overthrew their last king in historic times. The Greek transition from aristocracies of birth to oligarchies of wealth took a generation or two (the Age of Tyrants) and in many cases involved violence, whereas in Rome the transition required two centuries (the Struggle of the Orders) and was remarkably free of political violence. The Greeks produced radical democracies, but Rome, though technically democratic, never went beyond an oligarchy of wealth. The Greeks excelled in the arts and affairs of the mind; the Romans were great administrators and engineers. Despite a common language and culture the Greeks remained fragmented, and the empires of the fifth and fourth centuries were short-lived; even the huge Macedonian controlled empires of Alexander and his successors were relatively fragile. The Romans of course steadily expanded their power, conquering Italy and the Mediterranean world over a period of little more than three centuries and establishing an immense empire that would endure for almost another five hundred years. This power thing in particular baffled the Greeks, who could not understand why the Romans, who began with the same political, social and military equipment as themselves, could so easily become the stable imperial power that always eluded them. And being almost effortlessly conquered by a people they considered in so many ways intellectually inferior did not help.
Greek thinkers, like the historian Polybius, had trouble seeing beyond the institutions that made the two societies appear so similar. What apparently escaped them, at least in trying to understand Roman history, was something relatively simple: national character. The most important facet of the Greek character, affecting everything they engaged in, was agōn, the need to compete and struggle, which consequently enhanced the importance of both the individual and his city. The Greeks were most definitely not team players. The Romans were. Their prime character directive was pietas, duty, the compulsion to fulfill ones obligations to the family, the gods and the community, which ultimately meant the state. They were incredibly conservative, which slowed their evolution, but at the same time they were also eminently practical, which saved them from that conservatism. While the Greeks theorized, the Romans just did it – and did it differently if the traditional way no longer worked.

 

Consider the national heroes of the two cultures. For the Greeks it was the Homeric warriors, especially Achilles, extreme and narcissistic individuals who ultimately cared for only one thing – themselves. For them the major importance of the group was simply defining their individual honor, in defense of which they would gladly sacrifice their lives. The Roman heroes, on the other hand, were all men whose defining quality was the willingness to sacrifice for the group. Aeneas, the premier Roman hero, abandons Dido and the kingship of Carthage in order to fulfill his destiny as the ultimate founder of Rome. At great cost to himself he honors his duty to a state that will not even exist for another four hundred years.  Incidentally, Aeneas, though technically a Trojan, is a figure out of Greek literature, a Greek creation, yet the Romans  came to believe that he was the ultimate founder of Rome.
Why these character differences? It probably had much to do with their respective environments. The Balkan Peninsula, especially in the south, is a land of limited resources, notably arable land, and scarcity inevitably encourages competition. In contrast Italy possesses a great deal of good farmland, and Latium, the coastal area where Rome is situated, is particularly bountiful. This is not to say that the early Romans were devoid of any competitive spirit, but rather that survival in the relative economy of scarcity that was Greece instilled in the Greek psyche a far larger measure of competitiveness and aggressiveness. This is hardly a completely satisfactory explanation, but then, I am not a cultural anthropologist.
The Greeks competed in everything (even sex was seen as a kind of competition), which goes a long way in explaining their history and society. They competed in athletics, music and drama; trierarchs competed in equipping the fastest trireme. The incredible cultural explosion of the sixth and fifth centuries clearly has its roots in agōn; societies that are comfortable simply have less motivation to ask questions, to think new thoughts, to create new things. Archaic and Classical Age Greece (8th – 4th centuries) was, like the Renaissance, filled with struggle, and the result was the perhaps the most important intellectual discoveries in history. By way of contrast Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt (27th – 18th centuries) was the most materially and spiritually comfortable society in antiquity, and in the course of a millennium virtually not a single new idea was produced.

Roman genius

Roman genius

Greek genius

Greek genius

But the drive to compete had a down side. City-state governments were very unstable, and political violence was always just outside the door. More devastating of course was the seemingly endless warfare, as each city competed with its neighbors, not just for resources but also status. The city-state was a narcissistic entity, a polity with attitude, and warfare was the ultimate expression of superiority – at least if you won. So deeply ingrained by constant competition was the idea of autonomy that inter-city structures were inevitably based on force or the threat of force, as with the Athenian Empire or the Peloponnesian League, and unity eluded the Greeks until it was imposed from without. Common efforts, such as the defense against the Persian Empire, were extremely difficult, and Greece’s ultimate downfall emerged from her inability to cooperate for the common Hellenic good. It was left to the Macedonians monarchy, the most backward of Greek states, to dominate the Balkan Peninsula and conquer Persia.
The Romans of course also enjoyed a powerful sense of superiority – what successful culture does not – but it was not so all-consuming as with the individual Greek cities. In establishing control over the other Latin towns Rome was able to some extent to share authority and even her citizenship, something unthinkable for the Greeks. Roman arrogance took a back seat to practicality in dealing with defeated non-Latin peoples in Italy, and the Romans were able to create alliance structures that left them stronger and in complete control but offered sufficient mutual benefit to provide for long-term stability. The so-called Italian allies were thoroughly subordinate to Rome yet came to regard themselves as actual allies and ultimately as Romans, thus providing the manpower base that would allow the conquest of the Mediterranean world.

Roman genius

Roman genius

Greek genius

Greek genius

The Roman saw the world around him as a network of obligations, and honor was rooted in fulfilling those obligations. This makes for a very well-knit community, and the political factionalism that plagued the Greeks remained well leashed until the last century of the Republic. The Roman was inclined to accept rather than challenge authority, at least if he considered it legitimate, and as a result, the Senatorial elite smoothly governed Rome for four hundred years, even though for most of that period the Senate possessed no actual constitutional powers but was simply an advisory body. Once again, unthinkable for the Greeks. The system only broke down when the Senate was corrupted by power and wealth, and serving oneself edged out serving the state.
Ironically, but not surprisingly, both peoples initially considered the other barbarians. The Greeks clung to this notion well into their role as provincials in the Roman Empire, an idea perhaps sustained in the face of overwhelming Roman success by the fact that the new masters were so clearly impressed by the Greek cultural achievement. The Romans could hardly deny that achievement, as they learned Greek, imitated Greek arts and looted the statuary of the Hellenic world. So, the Greeks were not barbarians, like the Gauls and Germans; they were just effete.

 
The Hellenizing of Rome began long before Roman legionaries were traipsing about the Balkan Peninsula, and “captive Greece” captured Rome centuries before it actually became captive. The Greek Age of Colonization (late 8th – 6th centuries) saw Sicily and the coastal areas of southern Italy so thickly settled with Greek cities that the area became known as Great Greece, and young Rome could hardly resist the influence. Cumae, the northernmost and possibly earliest Greek establishment in Italy, was barely a hundred miles southeast of Rome, and the tendrils of Hellenism were already caressing the city on the Tiber while it was still being rules by kings. Roman culture was not quite a blank slate, but a couple of centuries behind the Greeks in their development, the Romans were simply overwhelmed.

Greek genius

Greek genius

Roman genius

Roman genius

The Latin alphabet is derived from the Greek, and the more defined and sophisticated Greek gods had such an impact that native Italic deities gradually disappeared, supplanted by the Greek pantheon with Latin names. Greek literature was so far advanced that the earliest examples of serious Latin literature are written in Greek. The Romans copied the hoplite phalanx, the more efficient heavy infantry formation invented by the Greeks, though characteristically, when it ran into trouble operating in the central highlands, they seriously modified it, copying weapons used by their opponents. Greek heavy infantry ended in the dead end of the Macedonian phalanx, while the Roman version grew into the legions.
In a very real sense Rome’s major legacy was preserving virtually intact the Greek achievement. The Greeks simply could not create stable long-term imperial structures, and while the discoveries of the Greeks would not have simply vanished without the Roman Empire, they would have suffered. Hellenized at such an early stage, Rome and her empire embraced Greek culture, and the extent and incredible duration of that empire insured that the grand ideas of the Greeks would be fixed at the heart of European civilization.

Herr Wachtmeister, Wo Ist der Dom?

I was out of town, so I am plugging in a piece I wrote for an anthology of articles on German studies.  This will be boring for most of you, but the German speakers should find it amusing.)

 

Stray Notes From the Periphery of German Studies

Let me make it clear immediately that I am not now nor ever have been seriously engaged in German Studies, most certainly not as a scholar. I am a classical historian, and German has for me essentially been simply a tool in my examination of antiquity. But one can hardly study the German language without being exposed to some degree to German literature and culture, and I have in any case long been in love with things German. The intent of this piece, then, is not a sober march through some aspect of German Studies but rather a somewhat less than serious meandering about the edges of die Deutschkunde.

 
I was born in 1946, so my earliest association with German culture came in the movie theater and the schoolyard, where I was hardly exposed to its loftier aspects. Post-war Hollywood of course portrayed Germans as sinister people and incompetent soldiers, but neither that nor the vague awareness that some horrible things had been done could dampen the enthusiasm of young American boys for the trappings of the Third Reich. Militarism is always a draw for young males, and these particular militarists had especially sharp uniforms, great parades and a very cool iconography (swastikas, deaths heads, runes, etc.). Sieg Heils and Hitler salutes and the odd ditty learned from Uncle Mac (“Hitler has only got one ball…”) were consequently part of the recess repertoire, and making it even more attractive was our knowledge that for some reason this sort of thing really annoyed adults. “But Mom, didn’t they fight the evil commie Russians?”

 
When I entered high school and was required to choose a foreign language, there was absolutely no question. French and Spanish were the languages of wimpy second-raters, and why in the world would anyone want to study a useless tongue like Latin (an ironic assessment given what I ended up doing for a living)? No, German was the cool language, if only because it conjured up images of the Wehrmacht, and in any case I knew it was also the language of science, and that was where I was headed. I thus found myself, along with many of my brainy (or nerdy) friends, in Jens Shurk’s first year German class, where we quickly discovered from our new dictionaries that the teacher’s name was seemingly an anglicized version of Schurke! And so my career of insufficient respect for authority began, literally auf deutsch in this instance.

 
In four years with Herr Shurk I went through all of Zeydel’s A Basic Course in German, published in 1951, which meant that to a good extent it was illustrated with photos of a Germany that no longer existed and seemed in any case to have no history between 1930 and 1945. The German in the second half of the book was printed in Fraktur, which certainly looked cool but seemed of limited use to a student who had no idea that he would be reading nineteenth century German historians. Zeydel was an uninspiring book of the Ich bin Walter, du bist Marie variety (and did not list coolness as one of its reasons for studying German), but just learning German was a heady enough experience, and Shurk, who had been stationed in Germany and married a German woman, soon began exposing me to perspectives on German culture that extended beyond Teutonic knights and the Third Reich. Most important for me was Richard Wagner, the operas of whom Shurk, a true Wagner freak, played in class under the somewhat specious pretext that they were in German. I wonder about the linguistic value of this practice, given the frequently bizarre nature of Wagner’s German, but while the other students were passing notes or dozing off I was beginning a lifelong love affair with die Zukunftsmusik. The poetry of Christian Morgenstern, the other delightful discovery out of high school German, was a pleasure gained only through laborious translating; the Ring could be absorbed directly into the bloodstream. And it has provided for the effortless acquisition of poetic German handy for all occasions, such as the announcement of a pregnancy – den hersten Helden der Welt hegst du, o Weib, im schirmenden Schoss – or a query about the style of one’s eggs – weiche, Wotan, weiche!

still in print 60 years later

still in print 60 years later

The Shurkjahre provided me with a basic grounding in German and a growing appreciation for the more noble aspects of the Kultur, but for all the club meetings, class discussions, German dinners and movies, actually speaking German remained elusive, as did the legendary Sprachgefühl that Shurk promised would one day descend upon us like a blessing from on high. The opportunity to learn actually to talk the talk came in college, where despite abandoning science as a vocation I continued with German (advanced placement!) as a minor to my ultimate degree in ancient history. This provided a broader and deeper exposure to German literature, which ranged from the tedious (Mann) through the cool (Borchert) to the wonderfully absurd (Dürrenmatt). The down side to this great reading, of course, was that it was in a bloody foreign language, though my concurrent study of Greek and Latin increasingly made German seem a language of stark simplicity.

 
Far more important was the opportunity to attend Stanford-in-Germany, easily the best thing Stanford University provided me (apart from the piece of paper that got me the piece of paper that got me my faculty appointment). In June 1964 I left California for the first time, heading with some eighty other students for sixth months of classes at the Stanford branch campus in the village of Beutelsbach outside Stuttgart, which has subsequently swallowed it. Actually, the “campus” was ensconced in the Landgut Burg, perched on a hill above Beutelsbach, to which we could descend like visiting nobility in order to observe their quaint ways and try their rustic dishes, like Zwiebelkuchen and Spätzle. And their ways did strike a group of American eighteen to twenty year olds as quaint. This was 1964 and Germany and Europe were not yet completely awash in American culture and goods, and consequently one instantly felt he was in a foreign country rather that a German language version of the United States. This was especially so for peer conscious college students with their serious concern for what was hip and now. There were of course the vanishing traces of an older and more rural Europe – the resealable ceramic-capped beer bottles, the unshaven legs and armpits, the smell of the Misthaufen, horse-drawn vehicles – but what struck us most was our young German counterparts, who were in our arrogant estimation most definitely not hip and now. Their dress, their rock ’n’ roll and their dancing, the things that really mattered, were all several years out of date (eastern Europe was like a trip into the fifties), which convinced us more than anything else that these people were provincials, an irony that I can now appreciate.

Beutelsbach

Beutelsbach

Landgut Burg

Landgut Burg

Zwiebelkuchen

Zwiebelkuchen

Certainly not provincial at all in our underage eyes was the eminently sensible European attitude towards alcohol, which suggested that if you were old enough to vote and be drafted, you were old enough to drink. This resulted in an initial period of frequent inebriation, but the novelty wore off soon enough for most of us. There was a Ratskeller right bellow the classroom, but most preferred the experience of drinking in a foreign language and enjoying that almost unique German institution, the Gasthaus. Climbing back up to the Burg after a bout of Stein-lifting not being to my taste, I frequented the Gaststätte Hirsch in Eichelsberg, where under the tutelage of Hermann the Wirt and his wife I learned a great deal of the Volksbrauch, at least when it came to swilling beer. On a couple of occasions Hermann (whom we called ihr because of his size) brought a bottle of American whiskey after closing and crushed the cap, an indication that this was likely to end up a Kotzenabend. As I said, the periphery of German Studies.

 
At the Burg we had classes four days a week. We were divided into five groups by level of German, and since I had so much in high school I was put in Gruppe A, also known as the Wunderkinder, which included several native speakers. The seminars were consequently conducted entirely in German, which meant initially that for the first time in my life I did not have much to say. The other classes, economics and German philosophy, were taught in English, though the English of the German professor who taught the latter was certainly novel. Among other things he constantly spoke of “three-angles” and often began by saying “From begin on…” We never had the heart to correct him. It was, incidentally, in that class that I first read a non-mathematical book that I simply could not understand, Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations. Consider the following sentence: “The universal Apriori pertaining to a transcendental ego as such is an eidetic form, which contains an infinity of forms, an infinity of apriori types of actualities and potentialities of life, along with the objects constitutable in a life as objects actually existing.” You said it, Edmund!

 
But the whole point of the program was to get one off the campus into the bosom of Germany and its culture, so we were more than encouraged to travel on those three day weekends. My first trip was with some students who had a car and we visited Munich (with many jokes on the way about Ausfahrt and Einfahrt), where I had the exquisite opportunity to use a stock phrase from Zeydel that had been a constant joke back in high school German. We could not find the cathedral we wanted to visit, and I thus approached a policeman and asked “Herr Wachtmeister, wo ist der Dom?” That was truly a verweile doch moment for me. I subsequently traveled alone, hitchhiking, in order to pump up my German, and this did the trick, since as is clear from what I did for a living, I really like to talk. The flubs were part of the fun, as when I was telling one of the Dienstmädchen, Helga (die ewige Weiblichkeit zieht uns hinan – und hinein, especially when you are eighteen), about World War I ace Rudolf von Berthold: Er hat vierundvierzig Flugzeuge geschissen. An incredible accomplishment, when you think about it.

Rudolf von Berthold

Rudolf von Berthold

Not everyone spoke the German I was familiar with, however, inasmuch as regional dialects were still running strong. We certainly struggled to comprehend schwäbisch, though it was soon discovered that one could fake speaking it by adding –le to the ends of sundry words: Grüβ Gottle! (Much later I learned the reply and was able to use it in the Himalaya when a German hiker greeted me with Grüβ Gott: Wenn ich Ihn sehe!) I had frequent conversations with an old man who seemed always to be leaning out his window when I visited Beutelsbach, and I don’t think I ever understood a tenth of what he was saying. And schwäbisch was nothing compared to Schwyzerdütsch. One weekend I visited the departed Helga in St. Moritz, and the locals might have been speaking an entirely alien language. In fact, some of them were. I happened to be in one of the very few places where they spoke Romansch, apparently a vestige of Latin and the Roman Empire. I wonder about a country that can not decide what its national language is. My conversational ability nevertheless developed steadily, and after a couple of months I suddenly realized that I was sometimes speaking German without thinking about it, that I had developed some instinctive sense of what was correct and what was not. I even began to notice grammatical mistakes made by native speakers. The legendary Sprachgefühl had come upon me!

 
The entire group took field trips. Paris was certainly fun, but Prague was much more beautiful and certainly more interesting. This was Warsaw Pact territory, our ostensible enemy, though that hardly seemed the case with all the Czechs I met, and as a workers’ paradise everything was so cheap that many mothers, including mine, got that European crystal they had been dreaming about. On the other hand, one of the students later tried to smuggle a Czech friend to the west in his car and for two years got see the Czech penal system up close and personal. Easily the most exiting trip was to West Berlin. This was the front line of the Cold War, and the juvenile enthusiasm we had demonstrated in Stuttgart, Paris and even Prague was suddenly tempered in sight of the wall, which had gone up only three years earlier. There is something about tanks and soldiers with assault rifles that takes the fun out of stealing street signs. A showcase for the west and capitalism, West Berlin was like a city on amphetamines, wired up day and night and ablaze with neon and a terrific place for young Americans who couldn’t get into a night club back home. For me of course this was also the capital of the Second and Third Reichs, a place that oozed history, and I spent a lot of time imagining the Red Army advancing on the Tiergarten or the final events in the Führerbunker. Well, perhaps not as much time as I spent watching the girls on the Kudamm.

 
East Berlin was in some sense also a showcase – for the failure of socialism. There were, amazingly, still blocks of rubble from the war, and a notable absence of many sorts of goods in the stores. But the people, even some of the Vopos, were friendly, and on my first trip over I was invited to a family dinner, though they did ask if I might bring some fresh fruit when I came. When I returned that evening, a female border agent on the east side of Checkpoint Charlie looked at my bag of oranges and asked in all seriousness: “Haben Sie eine Pistole versteckt?” Visions of Rosa Klebb in my head, I stammered out a nein and watched a huge grin appear on her face. Here was an evil commie functionary with a sense of humor, something, as I discovered on later travels, that was conspicuously absent from American customs officials. For convenience I normally passed through Checkpoint Charlie, but in order to experience what ordinary Germans endured I once crossed through Bahnhof Friedrichstraβe and had one of the more unforgettable moments of my life. I got separated from my friends and had to wait an hour on the east side for them. The sun had already set, and sitting outside on a bench, I saw a squad of perhaps a dozen Vopos marching down the darkening street. Watching them in their black uniforms with their jackboots kicking up in the goosestep, I was suddenly transported into the past. All that was missing were the swastikas. Heavy stuff for an historically inclined eighteen year old.

 Bahnhof Friedrichstraβe in the day

Bahnhof Friedrichstraβe in the day

The grandest single moment of the entire half year in Germany, however, came on my pilgrimage to Bayreuth. I arrived on the day of the last performance of that year’s Festspiel, but knowing that tickets had been sold out since before Wagner’s death, I expected only to see the Festspielhaus, Haus Wahnfried and the graves of the Master and Cosima. But for the hell of it I went to the ticket office, and a ticket had come back! There were four people ahead of me, but for one reason or another they turned it down, and I realized that I was about to see (for about $15) Götterdämmerung at Bayreuth. Eat your Herz out, Jens Shurk! From then until the opera began I was floating several feet above the ground, watching the opera jet setters in their sometimes antique formal wear while they watched me in my not so formal wear. The production was by Wolfgang rather than Wieland Wagner and thus not that great, but who cared? I was in a box right next to the one Wagner and Mad Ludwig had sat in, and at the end of the performance the actual grandsons of the vile genius appeared on the stage. The ovation went on for the better part of an hour, and my hands were sore from clapping and my voice hoarse from yelling. I expect that I am the only person ever to have yelled “Bitchin’!” in the Festspielhaus.

the holy of holies

the holy of holies

Before I departed Germany in December for the Kindermädchenstaat I stayed a week with a German family in Schorndorf, a whole new experience in Haushaltskultur. I knew Germans did far more handshaking than we, but I was astounded to witness the children in the family shake hands with their parents before retiring for the night and upon greeting them in the morning. My guess is that this custom has evaporated as Germany has evolved – unfortunately – into a less formal society in the last three decades. Also enlightening was a trip with one of the boys in the family to his Gymnasium, where he studied a curriculum that would baffle many of the undergraduates in an American university. His English teacher was delighted to have a native speaker in the class and had me read the text they were preparing. Perhaps not so surprising to me after a half year in Germany, I was periodically interrupted by the instructor, who would point out “That is the way they say it in America. Here is the way it should be pronounced.” And I had thought I spoke standard, non-dialectical English.

 
My time in Germany in 1964 was clearly the high point of my tenuous association with German Studies, but I did visit the Vaterland again. In 1979 a sort of circle was completed as I traveled to Germany (and other countries) in the company of Herr Shurk, who thus had the opportunity to hear one of his former students actually speak passable German. In return I got to meet his wife’s family in Mainz (Gel!), including her father, a former Gauleiter (cleared during the denazification) now in his eighties. My historian’s heart was of course excited – a living relic of the Hitler government – but he was disinclined to talk about the old days. Less lofty, perhaps, was my return in 1984 with my brother, whose German was at the Bier gut! level. The Burg was now a sort of convention center, the Stanford-in-Germany program having expired from lack of student interest, yet another sign of the decline of higher education in the United States. In Munich I insisted we visit the Hofbräuhaus, since I had been there exactly twenty years earlier to the month and every beer drinker should stop in at least once in his life. Just an hour or so in the afternoon for nostalgia purposes; we staggered out after midnight, so schön ist’s im Hofbräuhaus!

 
Meanwhile, German had for me become less the language of literature and beer halls and more the Gelehrtensprache, as I obtained a doctorate in classical history. The language I had as an adolescent thought useful for science turned out to be along with my mother tongue the most useful for studying antiquity. It was after all the Germans who invented “scientific” history (“wie es eigentlich gewesen ist”) in the nineteenth century, better to examine the classical world they had fallen in love with in the eighteenth. Moreover, German can be just perfect for the nitpicking so dear to scholars, especially those in Classical Studies. Was the Peloponnesian League a Staatenbund or a Bundesstaat? This sort of elegance is impossible in English. It is hardly surprising that the most monumental work in classical history, at least in terms of size, is in German: Pauly, Wissowa, & Kroll, Real-Encyclopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft. This was a project that lasted longer than the Second and Third Reichs combined.

 
My conversational ability has gone dormant in recent years, requiring a one or two week dip in a German-speaking environment to revive, and I have not returned to Germany in twenty years. But I have of late spent a lot of time in Greece, and German has frequently stood in for my non-existent modern Greek, since there are so many middle-aged Greeks (and Italians and Turks) who speak German from their days as Gastarbeiter. Besides, Germans and Austrians have the tourist Euros to spend, which more than compensates for any hard feelings left over from the forties, and many shops and restaurants sprechen Deutsch. Indeed, every summer there is a mini-Indo-European invasion, as Germans, dragging their Wohnwagen behind their Benzes, stream into the Adriatic and Aegean, seeking the sun and bargains. And if you fly into Athens, you pass through an airport built and for the next thirty years owned by the Germans.

 
Here in Albuquerque, the land of Karl May, my dance about the fringes of German Studies is maintained through my friendship with Peter Pabisch and Fritz Cocron, a Dolmetscher on the Ostfront (more living history) and possibly the only Wehrmacht veteran ever to be decorated by the Polish government. Our conversations are for the most part in English, but snatches of German nevertheless slip past my lips on occasion and Sprachgefühl appears with me still, ready to be awakened by a sojourn in Germany.

 
Mein Sinn ist in Griechenland, aber mein Herz bleibt immer in Deutschland.

If You Had the Luck of Ukraine, You’d Wish you Were Russian Instead

In 1938 Adolf Hitler prepared to send troops into the Sudentenland, the western predominantly German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia, on the grounds that the ethnic Germans there were being mistreated.  At the infamous meeting in Munich, to which the Czechs were not invited, France and Britain agreed to German annexation of the area, easing Europe a bit further down the road to war, which broke out a year later when the western powers refused accept the same justification for Hitler’s claim on Danzig and the Polish Corridor.  Vladimir Putin, czar of the reborn Russian empire, has now done the same in Ukraine, occupying the Crimea and threatening the Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine.  Unlike Hitler, however, he did not wait for permission from the west.

the Black Earth

the Black Earth

 

 

The history of Ukraine is to a large extent the history of Russia, and both groups trace their origins to the Kievan Rus’, the first great Slavic state, which took shape in the late ninth century.  Ironically, the initial ruling elite was not Slavic but Scandinavian, the Varangians, a Viking group that had settled the region via the great rivers from the north.  They quickly disappeared into the Slavic majority, but it was under their leadership that Kievan Rus’ was established, and under the Rurik dynasty it became in the tenth and eleventh centuries easily the most powerful state in Europe, controlling territory from the Baltic to the Black Sea.  The state began to disintegrate in the twelfth century, and in the thirteenth the Mongols showed up, devastating the land and destroying Kiev itself in 1240.  Kievan Rus’ fragmented into separate principalities, the most powerful of which was the kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia, which in the fourteenth century fell under the control of the grand Duchy of Lithuania and the kingdom of Poland.  This complicated matters inasmuch as the new rulers were Catholics, and in 1596 they introduced the Uniate Church, which employed eastern rituals but was under the Pope, thus creating a sectarian divide.

Where it all began

Where it all began

The southern area, along the Black Sea, became the Crimean Khanate, ruled by the Crimean Tatars, descendants of the Mongols.  At the same time a principality on the northeastern periphery of Kievan Rus’, Vladimir-Suzdal, grew into the Grand Duchy of Moscow, which would become Russia.  And there was of course the growing power of the Cossacks on the Dnieper and the Don, leading to the emergence of the Cossack Hetmanate, which dominated much of southern Ukraine.

 

 

In the seventeenth century the Ukraine experienced its own Thirty Years War, when from 1657-1686 the Poles, Russians, Cossacks and Turks (and a dash of Tatars) fought for control of the area.  The result was the “Eternal Peace,” which gave the land west of the Dnieper to Poland and the land east to Russia.   This divided the Cossacks, who nevertheless remained a powerful force in Ukraine, and in the early eighteenth century they joined Poland and Sweden in a war against Russia.  They were crushed, and the Hetmanate was abolished by Catherine the Great in 1764.  The last Hetman, Kirill Razumovsky, declared Ukraine a sovereign state in 1763, the first to do so.  When Poland was partitioned at the end of the eighteenth century, Russia and Austria divided Ukrainian territory west of the Dnieper.  The Crimean Khanate was annexed by Russia in 1783.

 

 

A relatively backward agricultural area, Ukraine was of little concern to St. Petersburg and Vienna in the nineteenth century.  The western half, Galicia, enjoyed a greater degree of freedom under the Hapsburgs, producing a nationalist movement, while the eastern half suffered under a program of Russification, which attempted to eradicate Ukrainian culture and literature and even language.  Ukrainians fought on both sides in World War I, and the entire nation was swept into the chaos and violence following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.  In the period 1917-1921 several Ukrainian “states” came and went, and while the bulk of the territory became the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922, parts of the west went to Poland, Belarus and the new republic of Moldava.

 

 

Then came suffering not seen since the days of the Mongols.  Some million and a half Ukrainians died during the Russian Civil War and the War with Poland, and an unknown number followed them into the grave during the famine of 1921.  During the twenties the Soviet government actually encouraged a revival of Ukrainian culture and language, but that changed with the triumph of Stalin at the end of the decade.  As a result of the forced collectivisation millions died of starvation in the early thirties, and during the purges more than a half million people were murdered, eliminating 80% of the Ukrainian cultural elite.  In the wake of this horror many Ukrainians in the west welcomed the Nazis as liberators, but German atrocities turned most to the unpleasant course of supporting the USSR, and during the war Ukraine actually regained territory previously ceded to others.

 

 

To the destruction caused by the war was added the deaths of tens of thousands during the famine of 1946-1947 and the deportation of hundreds of thousands prior to Stalin’s death in 1953.  Familiar with Ukraine and interested in establishing better relations, in 1954 Khrushchev transferred the Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, thus establishing the circumstances for the present crisis.  During the post-war period Ukraine enjoyed tremendous economic growth and influence, producing many prominent figures, including Leonid Brezhnev.

 

 

On 24 August 1991 Ukraine declared itself to be an independent democratic state, freeing itself from foreign control for essentially the first time in almost a millennium, and in December Ukraine, Belarus and Russia formally dissolved the USSR.  The Ukrainian economy suffered massively during the wild days of the nineties, but by 2000 real economic growth had been established.  Unfortunately, as with virtually all the former members of the Soviet Empire democracy did not come easy, and increasing fraud, corruption, concentration of power and the plundering of the national wealth led to the Orange Revolution in 2004.  Viktor Yanukovych, winner of rigged elections, was thrown out by Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko.  Two years later Yanukovych was back in power only to be replaced by Tymoshenko the following year.  In 2010 Yanukovych was elected president in a questionable election and had Tymoshenko thrown in prison.

Ukrainian military

Ukrainian military

the stooge

the stooge

Ukrainian Evita

Ukrainian Evita

Corruption was rampant under Yanukovych, who established a kleptocracy supported by the country’s oligarchs and became a puppet of Vladimir Putin, who, as is perfectly clear, wanted Ukraine in the new Russian empire.  This led to the current revolution and Yanukovych’s flight to Russia.  Having lost his stooge, Putin stirred up trouble among the majority Russians in the Crimea and sent in troops (with no insignia) to “protect” them and the Russian naval base leased from Ukraine.  This was a blatant violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, signed by Ukraine, the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom, which guaranteed the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state.

 

 

Vladimir Putin in not just the latest autocrat of all the Russias, he also a thug, nurtured in the bosom of the KGB.  Knowing that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was terrified of dogs, he deliberately had his large dog present when they met for the first time in Moscow.  He may be the most buff ruler of Russia in centuries, but he is a thug, with a Mussolini-like propensity to bare his chest.  But then, he is the ruler of Russia, a country filled with a greater than average number of vulgar and cruel people.  He is also a liar and a hypocrite, but what national leader is not?  He constantly touts national sovereignty (“stay out of Syria”) and then promptly invades Ukraine.  Of course US protests about violating sovereignty also ring a bit hollow, since we do it constantly, especially in Pakistan, and give unqualified support to a state, Israel, which seems to have no concept of national sovereignty beyond its own.

macho czar

macho czar

So what can the west do?  Western leaders are of course “closely monitoring” the situation, expressing “grave concerns” and calling for calm, all while wondering what the hell they can do.  Who actually controls the Crimea is hardly a major security interest for the west (good luck with all those Tatars, Vlad!) and places like Germany are far more concerned about Russian natural gas supplies, but from the beginning of time major powers have been concerned about losing face.  And there is substance to the notion that if aggression is not countered, the aggressor will seek more.

 

 

Still, we hardly want an actual war with the Russians, despite the fact that their military is a shadow of its former self.  It is mighty risky policy to get into a shooting contest with someone who has nuclear weapons, and if Hungary was not worth getting nuked for in 1956, the Crimea certainly is not in 2014.  Of course there is John “Why Are We Not Still in Vietnam” McCain advocating activating NATO junior partner status for Ukraine and Georgia, failing completely to understand that this is exactly the sort of thing that drives paranoid dictators over the edge.  Look at the virtual wall of American bases encircling Iran, and one gets a better idea of why they are belligerent.

 

 

On the other hand, Barack “Everything Is Secret” Obama has hardly been inspiring in his relatively placid response to the crisis.  It certainly does not take an expert in foreign affairs to see the only options available and to begin to implement them.  Immediately pump money into Ukraine to stabilize the economy and provide relief if Putin turns off the gas.  Ratchet up the diplomatic and economic pressure on Russia.  Prince Vlad probably does not care that much about world opinion, despite the big Olympic splash, but his country is a relative economic wimp and might have serious trouble enduring major sanctions, although his people are well accustomed to enjoying a low standard of living.  Throw Russia of the G8, freeze her foreign assets, place a travel ban on her leaders and surround the country with a fence of economic sanctions.  The problem here of course is those trading with Russia are likely to be far more concerned with the money to be made trading with Russia than who controls the Crimea.

 

 

And how did this crisis take the US by such surprise?  We are able to monitor every phone call on the planet – to little apparent end – yet our intelligence agencies could not catch troops and equipment being slipped into the Crimean peninsula?  Once the revolution against Yanukovych began last year did no one in the government consider what might happen if he fell from power?  Is that not basic foreign policy planning?  Are we not supposed to mistrust characters like Putin and expect the unexpected?  And this in a country where the Pentagon is rumored to have gamed wars against zombies?  Perhaps the President and Congress were too busy raising money?  I’ll bet there are contingency plans to invade the Russian Commonwealth if they injure Israeli interests.

 

 

Well, too bad there is a nuclear component.   A naval battle in the Black Sea would be very cool.  Where is the Wehrmacht when you need them?