An Adventurer Looks for the Next Fight

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Georges Lefebvre: Napoléon ISBN 978-2-84736-677-7 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ It is no coincidence that I devour biographies of political or religious leaders. I am trying to understand how such people’s minds work to grasp the awe-inspiring policy of people like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson. And it is no coincidence that I have read now a second biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, written by Georges Lefevbre back in 1936, with just as much pleasure and interest as I took in the work by Max Gallo. Napoleon Bonaparte’s political reforms had a profound impact on my home country’s destiny, and his personality – basically a cunning political adventurer seeming war for the benefit of the psycholigical kick – reminds me of some of today’s political leaders. This said, 2019 is the 250th anniversary of Bonaparte’s birth. That alone should be a reason to take a look at this extraordinary man.

When I speak about Bonaparte, I am more interested in the homo politicus than in the general. It is indisputed that he was a military innovator, a daring commander and an intellectual heavy-weight – despite strategic and tactical errors, despite the disaster in Russia and the lost battle of Waterloo. As for his political ambitions, now that is another story. As Lefebvre shows, Bonaparte’s decisions were often contradictory and at odds with his political goals, dictated by emotions, faciliated by an applauding ignorant crowd and a complying entourage. It is this facet of the man that reminds me of the appalling decisions made by Trump or Johnson. At the same time Bonaparte was a ruthless dictator, an enemy of democracy and hell-bent to break the law to increase his political power. He did not care about the public good, the interest of the nation, not even about even the legacy of the French Revolution of which he claimed to be a child. He was after power and glory, nothing else. His political career was about his ego, just as for Trump and Johnson.

While General Bonaparte seemed to be guided by reason and strict military logic, the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte appears as quite a different man. In domestic affairs, the wish to consolidate the political power of the state institutions quickly gave way to Bonaparte’s desire to concentrate all the power in his person. In foreign affairs, calculated risk-taking gave way to recklessness, military caution to deliberate provocation. Just to give you an idea: In 1803, Bonaparte was far from ready to win a naval war with Great Britain. 43 French battle ships were operational, but 23 were still under construction. His government was almost broke, and the French people gladly had adjusted to a life in a pacified country on a pacified continent.

Nevertheless Bonaparte treatened the British government’s interests by insinuating that he could invade once more Egypt and thus triggered a war he actually wanted to fight much later. Great Britain launched a preventive maritime campaign to deny France the command of the seas and cripple its overseas trade, while Great Britain’s allies Austria and Russia engaged France and its allies on the continent. Bonaparte engaged in a policy that could lead either to the subjugation of all Europe or his own fall. It was all or nothing. In the end France won this round, that is the third Coalitiin War – against all odds. And this victory encouraged Napoleon to push his luck further and further.

Whenever an adventure was looming at the horizon, Bonaparte could not resist. As a general he had to hold back his horses as he had superiors and political masters that defined policy goals and red lines. Once Bonaparte had secured the supreme political authority for himself, there were no more limits to his desire to cover himself with glory in a military campaign. He became addicted to success and to the veneration by his peers and by the crowds.

We should consider this evolution of a man when we try to evaluate the actions of Trump and Johnson. And we shouldn’t bet all our money on their early failure. I have deceived myself with the idea that Trump will shoot down Trump. He didn’t. He and Johnson may be lucky and win once or twice. That will be the moment to look out for and get ready for a new edition of Waterloo. Emboldened by initial success they may plot ever more adventurous schemes and ultimately fail, but only after having influcted a huge collateral damage on our societies.

Now a last word about the book: Lefebvre goes to great length to explain the rise an fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, the socio-economic conditions in post-revolutionary France, its fractured political landscape and the interests of the other European powers. He does it with much knowledge and an excellent pedagogical approach. His work, written more than 75 years ago, remains one of the landmarks in the field of research on the Napoleonic era. However, at times the author expects the reader to be himself an expert in French history. Many names, functions and technical terms go unexplained, and the editors of the modern edition would have been well-advised to add a glossary, a name index and a timeline of significant events.

In 1804 Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 saw its premiere, and the composer had given it the title “Bonaparte”. But once Bonaparte had proclaimed himself Emperor of France, Beethoven lost any sympathies for the autocrat and renamed it “Eroica”:

The Case Beethoven vs. Napoleon

Treason, Emprisonment and Two Heroes

combo montecristo_edited-2Alexandre Dumas: Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (Tome 1 & 2) ISBN 978-2-253-09805-8/978-2-253-09806-5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Tom Reiss: Black Count. Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo ISBN 968-0-307-38247-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Holocaust has been an important subject on this blog lately, and I must confess, reading about it was exhausting and at times depressing. What I needed then in terms of reading was a radical break, and I found it in Alexandre Dumas’ famous novel “Le Comte de Monte-Cristo”. What a beautiful work! There’s love, treason, conspiracy, suffering and vengeance. In the end, the evil ones will be punished while the just triumph and real romances starts to blossom. What more can you expect from a novel in the middle of the summer? I was amused by the plot devised by Edmond Dantès alias the Count of Monte Cristo, captivated by Dumas’ extensive descriptions of people and landscapes, and en passant I learned a couple of new-old French words I had to look up in my battered dictionary. Well done!

The novel by Dumas naturally led me to Tom Reiss’ book about the person who inspired the character of Edmond Dantès: Alexandre Dumas’ father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, son of a nobleman and a slave from Santo Domingo, the Haiti of these days. Dumas senior was the first black general of the French army, a hero of his times. He was a contemporary of another general, Napoleon Bonaparte. Dumas contributed in a decisive way to Napoleon’s victory of Austria and took part in his ill-fated Egypt expedition. Being a black man in a high position illustrated that the decade following the French Revolution let France’s human rights record glow in a bright light.

However once Napoleon announced his political ambitions and turned into a violent autocrat, this light began to fade. Black people in France became subject to ever stricter segregation rules. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was to suffer from both this worsening climate and the jealousy of Napoleon. Dumas was famous, he was an imposing figure and the Austrians called him the “Black Devil”. Napoleon did not tolerate any perceived rivals, and certainly not black ones. His government abandoned Dumas when he was taken prisoner by the Italians and thrown into jail. Dumas even suspected that the French government gave the order to poison him.

Thomas-Alexandre Dumas’ fate at the hands of the Italians inspired his son, Alexandre Dumas the novelist, to start his novel with the imprisonment of Edmond Dantès at the Château d’If. And when Dumas mocks the customs of the French nobility and the newly empowered bourgeoisie in his novel, he obviously refers to the climate in which his father first strived and then sunk into misery. Dantès’ quest for justice under the alias of the Count of Monte Cristo reflects the novelist’s desire to avenge his father and to have his former glory restored.

Tom Reiss book is remarkable for two reasons: The story of the black general needed to be told as he has been forgotten in France while Napoleon is still glorified by many. And the way Reiss let’s the reader embark on his own investigation about this man is a brilliant story in itself. Digging through French military archives and breaking into a safe to get hold of the general’s personal document – mon Dieu! “Black Count” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and again I would like to say: Well done!

Edmond Dantès was illegally imprisoned after a vile denunciation, and Dumas novel is about the transformation of a man in a cold and damp cell. Dantès learns of a hidden treasure on the island of Monte Cristo, and after his escape from the Château d’If, he takes up the alias “Comte de Monte-Cristo” first to help hose who helped his father while he was locked away, and then to punish those responsible for his captivity. This transformation from protector to avenging angel is one of the turning points of the novel, and it’s setting is Rome during the carnival season. What other music could I recommend than Hector Berlioz’ overture “Le Carneval Romain”:

The Cursed Saltarello or Why We Should Be Foolish

About Being Led to the Nazi Slaughterhouse

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Raul Hilberg: Die Vernichtung der europäischen Juden (Translation by Christian Seeger, Harry Maor, Walle Bengs, Wilfried Szepan; English title: The Destruction of the European Jews) ISBN 978-3-596-24417-1 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Raul Hilberg’s scientific study of the Holocaust, first published in 1961, ranks among the best works about this difficult subject of all times. It is easy to see why: The author consulted tens of thousands of source documents, from original Wehrmacht and SS paperwork to the records of the Nuremberg War Criminal Tribunals. The level of detail of this study makes it a valuable tool for historians and political scientists. The level of detail makes it also a challenging, at times exhausting read.

If you decide to read this book, be warned: Hilberg describes the three distinct phases of the destruction of the European Jews – expropriation, concentration and finally the killing – without resorting to any emotional language. There is no dramatic element that softens the impact that the account of how a well-organized bureaucracy meant to systematically kill millions of people may have on the reader’s mind. The neutral description of the planning and execution of the confiscation of stocks, gold, jewels, houses, furniture and personal belongings, of the deportation from all territories under Nazi control, of the ever-growing apparatus of the SS and finally of the running of concentration, labour and death camps – all this makes Hilberg’s study a brutal book.

The German edition counts some 1000+ pages, and it would be a futile effort to try to summarize the content of the three volumes. I will instead focus on an aspect that was new to me. Something that became a hard-to-chew-on food for thought. According to Hilberg, there was hardly any Jewish resistance. The Jews, whatever their origin, did not put up a fight before being led to the slaughterhouse. Actually, if you permit the allegory, they readily lined up in a disciplined queue, encouraged by the elders of their respective council.

Hilberg has a psychological explanation that I wouldn’t have though of: 2000 years of European anti-Semitism had taught the Jews to assimilate, to accommodate, to submit to the stronger. They had survived prosecutions, expropriations, discriminations and expulsions before. Under the Nazis, it wouldn’t be different, many experienced leaders thought. Give in a little, buy the Nazis off, suffer silently, be patient and forthcoming, and after some hassle they will leave us alone.

What the Jewish communities initially did not realize, was the fact that the Nazis actually wanted to go the anti-Semitic way down until its very end: the physical destruction of all European Jews. They couldn’t imagine that the Nazis would build an administrative system able to kill all Europeans Jews and would be quite willing to use it. When the first news of horrible crimes being committed in a little Polish town called Auschwitz filtered back to the ghettos or to countries occupied by German forces, people found it hard to believe. And the well-planned Nazi deception campaign was successful in entertaining the myth that the Jews would be resettled or sent to labour camps, where they would be fed and clothed.

Centuries of submission had taught European Jews not to resist, to obey and to believe in their survival however discriminating the Nazi measures would turn out to be. The lambs ultimately trusted the wolves and their sweet talking. Herein lies the tragedy of Europe’s Jews, and perhaps it may explain why some of Israel’s politicians today have this “We can trust nobody except ourselves” reflex. Israel, the old and new home of Judaism, is seen as the only place where Jews could feel safe. The unwillingness to compromise, the “all-or-nothing” intransigence may have their roots in the Holocaust. Perfect safety in Israel is an illusion of course, because the creation of Israel untied a bundle of other security problems. But this idea may have its origins in the shattered Jewish illusions about mankind after the Holocaust. Many have questioned the possibility of God after Auschwitz, even more have question the idea of trusting non-Jews.

When I was done reading the three volumes of the German edition, I realized that if the Nazis share the main responsibility of the destruction of the European Jews, the widespread and at times virulent anti-Semitism in the past centuries played a crucial factor to model the mindset of both the perpetrators and their victims. An aggravating factor is the fact that the Allied powers fighting Hitler did nothing to stop the Holocaust. The rescue of the Europeans Jews was no strategic priority. For this reason I believe that the Holocaust’s last chapter has not been written yet if it ever will be written. Future generations will judge us on how well we Europeans learned the lessons of an act of unparalleled cruelty, of a crime whose dimensions even Hilberg’s 1000+ pages of scientific analysis can only sketch. They will assess how well we fought anti-Semitism in Europe after Word War II. And how well we fought any other form of discrimination.

Is it appropriate to speak about music in the context of the Holocaust? I should think so. Some thought that after Auschwitz neither poetry nor music would be possible. But such an attitude would hand over victory to the Nazis posthumously. In 1967 Dmitry Shostakovich has written a violin concerto in C-sharp minor that might stimulate your mind to reflect the value of a human life: yours and your neighbour’s:

Paranoid Feelings as the Sun Sets on the Countryside

From Emigration and Expulsion to Extermination

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Götz Aly: “Endlösung” Völkerverschiebung und der Mord an den europäischen Juden (English title: Final Solution: Nazi Population Policy and the Murder of the European Jews) ISBN 978-3-596-29756-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ As you may have observed, my interest in Judaism and more specifically in the genesis of the Holocaust and its meaning for the Jews and us today has been growing. The more I read, the more I see how many facets the subject has and how much I still do not know. The German historian Götz Aly has published already in 1995 a much applauded study with a very special focus: How the Nazis’ idea to regroup all European citizen of German origin inside the Reich lead to the expulsion of the Jews of their homes and ultimately to their death.

Before World War II, people of German descent lived in Poland and Russia, in the Balkans, in Italy, in the Baltic Republics and on the Black Sea coast. Heinrich Himmler’s idea was to move all these people into Germany. They would live in the houses of the expelled Jews and in the homes of those Poles who would be expelled from the Polish territories annexed by Germany and incorporated into the Reich. The new German settlers would inherit the Jews belongings, the Jews’ confiscated money would serve as their starting capital. An ambitious plan. The trouble was that there never were enough suitable homes or transport capacities to transfer millions of people from their original home to somewhere else, inside or outside the enlarged Reich.

Aly has consulted many original documents as far as they are still available. He also had to interpret many of these documents as the Nazis progressively started to use neutral terms to hide what would become known as the “final solution”: the extermination of all Jews in Europe. Initially, the plan was to group the Jews temporarily in ghettos and later in a huge, closed community in Eastern Europe, somewhere in the conquered territories of Poland and the Soviet Union. These plans came to nothing as the Germans did not achieve a decisive victory over the Soviet Union. The conquered areas were not big enough or not suited for settlements and chaos ensued. The Germans from outside the Reich were already on the move, but the Jews and the Poles had not yet left.

Intermediate solutions had to be found. Mental asylums and hospitals for disabled persons became available as the Nazis proceeded to kill this group of people. It was a temporary solution only, but it gave the SS a first occasion to test efficient killing methods like the use of carbon monoxide and later the insecticide “Zyklon B”. Another plan to resettle the Jews in Madagascar faltered when it became evident that the Germans would not be able to win decisively over the British-French alliance and thus control the sea lanes and France’s colonies in Africa. More chaos ensued. It was not helped by the fact that Nazi bureaucracy was at times paralysed by conflicting priorities (like the Wehrmacht needing trains to move tanks), by infighting, sheer incompetence and clashes between top brass like Himmler and Hans Frank, the ruler of occupied Poland, the “Generalgouvernement”.

This book is a fascinating read, but it is a tough one too. To approach the logic of killing millions of humans from the bureaucratic or administrative angle, is a challenge both for the author and for the reader. Unfortunately Aly loses himself sometimes in minute details which doesn’t help the purpose of explaining “how” the Nazis gradually began to see in the killing of millions of Jews the only way to deliver on their promises to the German people. Voluntary emigration had not fully worked, displacement and concentration shifted the “problem” east, but since the East lacked the space to accommodate millions of Jews, the Nazis – and with them the Jews – were caught in a trap.

“The internal logic of the Nazi state evolved in a tense climate caused by huge transformation and expansion plans, unstable temporary solutions and limited resources”, Aly writes. “This lead to practical constraints, high expectations and the need for action on the background of rassist values well-anchored in the German population.” And he states that the ideas the Nazis developed were absolutely rational and not really far-fetched. Which means that such an event as the Holocaust could repeat itself under similar circumstances. A horrifying idea.

Despite the very matter-of-fact tone of the book, reading it was an emotional endeavour. Actually Aly’s rational approach made the madness of the Holocaust more palpable than any personal account, with all the emotions such a narrative would transport. The desperation, the loneliness, the lack of options of the Nazis’ victims made me think of the bleak perspective Franz Schubert’s song cycle “Winter Journey” sketches:

Wandering to the Point of No Return

“Their life is short, their numbers are infinite.”

Primo Levi: Ist das ein Mensch? (Translation by Heinz Riedt, English title: If This Is a Man) ISBN 978-3-424-12395-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ How can you think the unthinkable? How can you speak about the unspeakable? Primo Levi did both. Between 1945 and 1947 he wrote down what he saw, heard, smelled, tasted, felt and thought in Auschwitz. He had been deported from his Italian homeland in 1944, and the Nazis had planned to kill him slowly by having him work himself to death. They almost succeeded to destroy both his body and his soul. Luck and his will to live made it possible for him to survive until the German janitors fled from the advancing Soviet army.

“To succumb is the easiest way out”, Levi writes. “All you need to do, is to execute all orders, to eat no more than the ration [attributed to you] and to obey the discipline at your workplace and in the camp. Experience has demonstrated that one will survive only exceptionally beyond the time span of three months.” Those who succumb “have all the same story, or rather they have no story at all […] Their life is short, their numbers are infinite.”

Levi’s memories of his time in a Nazi concentration camp are to date the most impressive testimony of the Holocaust that I have read. Levi’s narrative style is resolutely non-dramatic. This sobriety is a result of his profound reflection about humanity: What defines man? How could humans do this to others? Levi tries to understand what cannot really be understood: the Germans’ mass killing of Jews, political opponents, mentally deranged people, disabled people, Roma and Sinti.

The many Levi saw die, “populate my memories having a presence but no face; and if I could sum up in one picture all the misery of our time, I would pick one that is familiar to me: a defeated man, his forehead lowered, his shoulders hunched, and with a face and eyes that show not the hint of a thought.” A living dead on the way to fade away without leaving a trace.

Levi isn’t angry. “I never hated the German people, and if I had, I would be cured by now. I cannot understand or accept that man is being judged for what group he belongs to instead of being judged for what he is”, he quotes from a letter to his German translator. That would mean repeating the Nazi logic. Levi’s wish is to testify, and specifically the translation of his book into German was meant to trigger a feedback, which would allow Levi to understand the Germans. At least that was Levi’s hope.

Levi witnessed how thousands of human beings were stripped of all that defined them as humans: their name, their honour, their religion, their belongings, their physical force and finally their life. And this is the key issue: the easiness with which the Holocaust seemed to have happened, with thousands of willing Germans and non-Germans – the Kapos – playing their little part in a huge machine. Can something similar happen again? In my opinion yes, if circumstances are right. There are easy victims and easy perpetrators. Add populism, hate-speech and a functioning burocracy… Dehumanization doesn’t take much.

In 1961, the Soviet poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko published a poem with the title “Babi Yar” remembering the victims of one of the largest war crimes committed by the Germans during World War II. It inspired Dmitry Shostakovich to write his Symphony No. 13:

Mass Murder and a Lesson in Morality