Getting to Know Stauffenberg? Not Really.

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Sophie von Bechtolsheim: Mein Großvater war kein Attentäter ⭐️⭐️ ISBN 978-3-451-07217-8 Killing a tyrant is a complicated issue. Not from a practical point of view. It can be done. It has been done actually. Cesar, Louis XVI, Tsar Alexander II, Nicolae Ceausescu… But is it legitimate? And if so, under which circumstances? What if the killer has no noble motive, but just happens to be psychopath? What if he acts for personal gain? What if he wants to become a tyrant himself?

I came to reconsider this question when I started to read this book about Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, one of the men and women that plotted (and failed) to kill Adolf Hitler in July 1944. Hitler was evil, of course, but killing a man is an immoral thing, isn’t it? The last time I had thought about it was in 1989, when I took an undergraduate course in political theory and tried to deal with the ancient Greek philosophers’ ideas on the subject. The Greeks came to the conclusions that killing a tyrant is a complicated thing.

Had Stauffenberg’s plot succeeded, World War II might have ended earlier than it did. But would it have been right for Stauffenberg to blow up the Führer with a bomb when Stauffenberg mostly wanted to save Germany from a humiliating military defeat, that would strip it of its earlier military gains? His motive wasn’t to propagate a liberal democracy in Germany, far from it. Democracy was totally unpopular in Germany after the failure of the Weimar Republic and would have been unfeasible in 1944 after an eventual cease-fire. The Allied powers had to force it upon the Germans after the total defeat in 1945.

The plotters around Stauffenberg were concerned about the suffering of Germans, dying at the Eastern front or at home in the bombed cities. Those very Germans who had elected the Nazis in 1933 with a substantial majority. The plotters wanted a powerful, autocratic Germany minus Hitler and his Nazi clique. They were aware of the horrible crimes committed against the Jews and civilians in the occupied territories, but to stop this wasn’t their primary or even secondary motive. They acted out of a feeling to save Germany’s honour, the honour of some other Germany, not perverted by Hitler’s fantasies.

Sophie von Bechtolsheim is a German historian born in 1968. She is also the grand-daughter of Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, the subject of her book. Stauffenberg was a plotter, but he was much more than that as the title suggests. He was a husband, a father, a German national-conservative, a soldier, a faithful Catholic. Von Bechtolsheim’s intend was to sketch a personal portrait of the man. I had high expectations that unfortunately have not been fulfilled by the book. Von Bechtolsheim gives us some background about the Stauffenberg family, and that’s it.

Stauffenberg was executed by the Nazis a day after the failed attack on Hitler and, as a careful conspirator, he had left no written traces about his plans, his motives, his reflections, his political ideas. He knew right from the beginning that he was playing with fire. For that reason von Bechtolsheim draws from the memories of relatives, mainly Stauffenberg’s wife, of friends and surviving co-conspirators. It adds a little to the picture of Stauffenberg, but not much. To historians the book is utterly irrelevant and certainly no alternative to a well-researched biography. To political scientists her comparison of modern-day terrorism and the bomb attack of 1944 is at least bizarre.

Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg was a gifted and enthusiastic cello player. I valued this piece of information in von Bechtoldsheim’s book more than anything else she wrote. Given his education, he certainly was familiar with the Romanticists’ beautiful chamber music. So here we go with the appropriated music, Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No. 13 in A Minor:

Beautiful World, Where Are You?

The Homo Sovieticus is Alive and Kicking

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Masha Gessen: The Future is History. How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia ISBN 978-0-525-53406-8 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Masha Gessen’s book intends to draw a psychogram of the Russian society, a fascinating endeavour for anyone interested in current political affairs and a must-read for anyone interested in the future of the West’s relationship with Russia. I cannot judge how close Gessen gets to draw an accurate and complete picture of how the Russian society ticks today, but by following the fate of four former Soviet and now Russian citizens from the terminal stage of the USSR until today, she gave me a highly valuable insight into the soul of the Homo Sovieticus, a species that did outlive its natural habitat.

The lives of Zhanna and Masha, both born in 1984, Seryozha, born in 1982, and Lyosha, born in 1985, are the four lenses through which different steps of contemporary Russian history are examined. They represent different social backgrounds, different ways of education and socialization, but they share a common fate: They are crushed by the weight of an ever more oppressive political system and their wishes for a life in a free society did not find fulfillment.

Gessen basic theory is that the Homo Sovieticus had learnt to be ruled by ruthless rulers without complaining too much and that any new ideas – i.e. those imported by the West like democracy, liberalism, the rule of law – will not be met with enthusiasm by the Russian society. Modern Russian society functions both at the level of the rulers and at the level of the ruled according to the norms of the USSR.

Basic pillars of social cohesion in the USSR were the narrative of a glorious Soviet victory in World War II, a certain ideal of presumed Russian traditions (xenophobia), the opposition to the United States and great power status. The Homo Sovieticus thrived on these, and modern Russia looks back with nostalgia according to Gessen. The capacity for “doublethink”, the admission of contradictory experiences in one mindset, a capacity well-developed among Soviet citizen, was of great help to adjust to the situation then and now.

President Vladimir Putin, an old hand in the art of manipulation, exploits this nostalgia by promising Russians the return of the apparently golden times. This, and the Russians’ longing for “stability” after the turmoil that signaled the end of the USSR, made it possible for Putin to turn Russia into an authoritarian state. He succeeded in petting a complacent, silent majority against minorities: students pursuing a liberal society, foreign NGOs, non-ethnic Russians and the LGBT community. And he succeeded in creating the illusion that Russia is under threat from all sides, a situation that requires an active defense which he alone can lead.

Obviously Putin did not succeed simply by coming to power. He needed the backing of the rich elite, that is the oligarchs who managed to gain control over large parts of the Soviet economy when Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin broke up the state monopolies to fill the government’s purse. Putin had them choose between two options: a) accept political control under Putin’s leadership and retain the majority of their wealth b) oppose Putin’s policies and face detention and the loss of all their wealth. For most oligarchs the choice was easy. They backed Putin, had their second residence in Switzerland and were left alone.

Ordinary Russians, who could not choose between two residencies, had another choice. They could rebel openly, demonstrate in Moscow, distribute flyers or stage protest actions like the Punk group Pussy Riot. They would have to face arrests, beatings by the police, psychological harassment and the loss of their job. Or they could tacitly agree with Putin’s policies, participate in pseudo-elections and be left alone too. Many chose the latter option since this was what had guaranteed the Homo Sovieticus a more or less untroubled life. It proved to be a good survival strategy once more.

True, human rights abuses under Putin are minimal compared to the totalitarian rule of Stalin. But Putin does not need Stalinist terror. A little pressure here and there seems sufficient, especially when his policy has elements the Homo Sovieticus can agree wholeheartedly: Yes to Russian grandeur, no to foreign interference. Yes to traditional family values, no to pedophiles (i.e. homosexuals in Putin’s propaganda). Yes to a strong ruler, no to democratic experiments that lead to anarchy.

By exploiting the deep-seated fears of the Homo Sovieticus, Putin has imposed his idea of a “guided democracy” upon Russia. More and more dissidents leave the country, the silent majority stays. Putin benefitted from a booming economy, but even successive political and economic disasters like the sinking of the submarine “Kursk” and the banking crisis have not paved the way for a leadership change and a different, more open society. The few years of relative freedom under Yeltsin were not enough to foster western ideas about a modern, liberal and democracic society in Russia. And by now it is too late as Putin exercises sufficient control over what the Homo Sovieticus reads, hears, sees and thinks to make any revolt a hopeless endeavour.

But let’s turn to our four dramatis personae. Zhanna is the daughter of the longtime politician and activist Boris Nemtsov, murdered in Moscow. As such she is an eye-witness to the gradual worsening of the human rights situation in Russia. Masha for her part grew up with an admiration for the Soviet Union’s strength. She wanted to become a military officer. At the end of day however we find her marching with thousands of protesters in Moscow against the manipulation of elections in Russia.

Seryozha grew up in a privileged part of Soviet society, the nomenklatura. He had his political awakening in 2008 at the presidential elections, which he recognized as what they were: a farce. Finally Lyosha. He knew he was in trouble as soon as he had discovered he was gay. Even before Putin started to blame the LGBT community for making Russia weak in every aspect, be it demography, the field of national defence or the political arena, living homosexuality in the open was problematic in Russia. Under president Putin it became life-threatening.

Gessen paints a depressing picture of today’s Russia, and Western leaders and businessmen should not be trusted when they present Russia as an opportunity and try to persuade us that closer political and economical ties would benefit ordinary Russian in pursuing their dream of a free society. That dream is dead, and the formula “change through interaction” has already failed with China.

Gessen has written a good book, an important book, nevertheless some of the last chapters irritated me. She emphasizes the persecution of the LGBT community as this is a good indicator of the degree of individual diversity the rulers and the vast majority of Russians are willing to tolerate. Needless to say that by now the tolerance is zero. Putin and his propaganda masters have turned the population into enforcers of  discriminating laws, mainly by equating gay men with pedophiles, foreign agitators, spies and Jews. As important as this part of Putin’s policy may be, is it the only indicator of an authoritarian state worth mentioning?

Gessen sees Russia in the fangs of totalitarianism, but she offers not enough elements to substantiate this claim. The take-over of most media outlets would have been an example, the selective access to the internet another. Gessen remains rather silent about this. Putin’s ideas on economical autarky, useful if you want to limit exposure to foreign ideas, is not mentioned at all. The militarization of youth movements like “Nashi” and the growing budgets for defence expenditures are subjects omitted in Gessen’s book.

These elements may have little to do with the soul of the Homo Sovieticus, but a lot with Gessen’s claim that Russia is a totalitarian state. By focusing on the LGBT community, Gessen suggest that their persecution is the biggest problem of Russia. It clearly isn’t. It’s part of what is wrong in Russia, but it’s not the key issue. The key issue is the question whether Putin’s idea that Russia is different from the US and from Europe and thus not suited for democracy and an open society is echoed by a majority of the Russian population. This is crucial for us who live outside Russia.

What does Putin’s vision of Russia mean for Poland and for Hungary whose leaders do not look like they share the fundamental values of the European Union? What does it mean for our dependency on Russian gas? And what does it mean for the United States under the presidency of Donald Trump? Gessen offers no answers except personal indignation. Am I unfair towards the author? She’s an LGBT activist and has a substantial journalistic talent, she is not a political scientist after all. To this I would like to object that totalitarianism in the shape of National Socialism and Stalinism is too serious an issue to serve as selling argument for a book.

The Soviet composer Edison Denisov once complained about “fossilized academicalism” in the Soviet Union. He was a student of Dmitry Shostakovich, one of the greatest Russian composers of all times, and in 1954 he wrote a wonderful Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano:

A Student’s Reverence to Dmitry Shostakovich

Europe is Not Yet Lost – With or Without Trump

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Benjamin Haddad: Le paradis perdu: L’Amérique de Trump et la fin des illusions européennes ISBN 978-2-246-82016-1 ⭐️⭐️ ⭐️ If you have been living on an island for the past five years or if you never cared to read one of the much decried mainstream newspapers or if you inform yourself exclusively through dubious posts on social media networks, than this is a good book for you. Haddad shows how America lost its interest in Europe since the end of the Cold War and how – mainly for economic reasons – it turned its attention to the Pacific area. America’s friendship and support can no longer be taken for granted and Europe is slow to react to this change, Haddad finds.

If the political tension between the US and Europe cannot be neglected, there are also other forces at play, favouring a unilateral conception of politics. Haddad explains how many people in European countries just like parts of the US population succumb to populist politicians exploiting the fault lines in societies manly caused by the effects of globalization and the deregulation of financial markets. America first is echoed by Britain first or Hungary first or Italy first. Or Russia first for that matter. What Haddad does, is a tour d’horizon of current geopolitical issues, well researched and well written.

Anyone reading the “Washington Post”, the “New York Times” or the “Financial Times” on a more or less regular basis, anyone trying to stay up-to-date with current events from President Trump’s erratic foreign policy, the looming trade war with China and the Brexit fiasco will find little new insight in Haddad’s book. If the US and Europe still share common values, they no longer seem to have common strategic goals, neither in military affairs nor in economic issues. This is common wisdom by now and has nothing of a revolutionary theory.

Haddad maintains that this evolution is irreversible, as it began long before Trump came to power. He observes a disengagement of the United States already under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. To this I would like to reply that US governments always oscillated between engagement with and disengagement from Europe since World War I. The growing or narrowing distance between the US and Europe often did not reflect strategic choices but rather political constraints in Washington. That’s why I believe that Haddad’s conclusion is premature. But of course his thesis is an excellent sale’s pitch for a young political scientist.

This said, I agree with Haddad that Europe must quickly learn to care for itself. This is something most European heads of state agree on, and if it takes hard and long negotiations in Brussels to conceive a coherent EU foreign and security policy and a strong economic position in the global competition, that seems to be the price to pay for a united Europe. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the construction of a strong yet benign Europe has been going on now for half a century and there is still much left to do. I never had any illusions about either the eternal friendship of the United States or the rapid achievement of European unity. And if Haddad gave his book the title “Paradise Lost”, I do not consider Europe lost. Compared to the United States, we Europeans are much closer to paradise now than America ever was.

The Hungarian composer Bela Bartok escaped to the United States during World War II and in 1943 he composed a piece than won him universal praise, the Concerto for Orchestra (BB 123, SZ. 116):

Bartok’s Transition from Death to Life

“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

Fighting Tomorrow’s Wars

Paul Scharre: Army of None. Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War. ISBN 978-0-393-35658-8 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ You don’t read books about military affairs? You should. Weapons research has reached a point where humanity faces moral, legal and technical choices similar to those at the beginning of the nuclear arms race. High-performance sensors, remote platforms like satellites, artificial intelligence, communication networks and real-time transmission of high volumes of data converge and make the fielding of autonomous weapons a realistic option – weapons with little or no human input. Does that correspond to the future we want? Think about it.

We all know about drones circling above the Gaza strip, Ukraine, Syria or Afghanistan to locate and kill targets. So far there’s still a human being in the OODA loop: Observation – Orientation – Decision – Action. An analyst decides whether a target is eligible for a kill within a set legal framework, an operator pushes the button that fires the lethal missile.

But what if computers would take over these decisions? What if an algorithm would decide about who is to live and who is to die? After all computers are unemotional, never tired, never stressed, never sadistic. Objective in a way. What if a computer would release the missile from a long-endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or a seaborne platform? No more costly and dangerous deployments to war theatres far away. It could all be done from a terminal in the US or Europe or from a ship far away from a hostile coast.

Paul Scharre takes us on a journey into the world of software programmers and weapons engineers, of robotics and Artificial Intelligence to show where we stand in terms of technological progress. From there on he explores the moral choices we face and outlines the shape of tomorrow’s wars. This is insofar relevant as all major military powers push research in these fields, and in a world of global political and economic competition, war is always an option – open, offensive as well as undeclared, clandestine wars for some, purely defensive actions for others.

One of the key take-aways is summed up by Brad Tousley, the director of DARPA, the Pentagon’s R&D agency tasked to imagine tomorrow’s game-changing military technologies: “Until the machine processors are equal to or surpass humans at making abstract decisions, there’s always going to be mission command.” This means that human beings will remain in charge when it comes to evaluate options for action the machine may propose. A target may be identified by an algorithm to be legitimate, e.g. a person carrying a rifle in an enemy controlled territory. But only a human will recognize that it is an adolescent guarding his sheep and understand that pictures of killed children help the enemy’s propaganda.

For the time being, algorithms seem to be unable to analyze multi-dimensional contexts in the way the human brain does. This may explain why Google, Twitter, Facebook etc. have such trouble finding and removing extremist propaganda from their networks. Context is key and context is complex when it comes to human behaviour. Our brain, the collective rules that govern our societies, our empathy, our experience – evolution has produced a sophisticated system over thousands of years that technology can not easily emulate or surpass. However technology is getting better and better. Drones take off and land by themselves on an aircraft carrier. Unmanned ships have put sea and navigate on their own and may soon hunt submarines. Automated logistics systems and surveillance platforms are already operational.

Humans make mistakes, no doubt. Usually the consequence of one human error of judgment is limited. But machines make mistakes too, even those with Artificial Intelligence. And if one machine makes a specific mistake, all machines of that type will make the same mistake. And they will repeat the mistake until a human steps in. In autonomous weapons there would be no human to step in. A horrifying scenario!

The key question for developers is: Can we build a piece of technology that fulfills mission requirement with a high level of reliability? Soldiers want weapons they can trust under many different circumstances. Their life may depend of it. If a certain piece of hard- or software is mission-critical and its reliability is not proven beyond doubt, it may be safe to keep a human operator or supervisor in the loop.

Not that this will prevent fatal errors. When the US attacked Iraq after 9/11, Patriot batteries shot down two allied fighters. The software did what it should do: track incoming targets and destroy them when authorised by the operator. Man in the loop working on tested equipment. The software however did not distinguish between Iraqi ballistic missiles and friendly planes. And the operators did not question the information the battery’s sensors fed back to them. Soldiers need to trust their weapons – but not blindly.

In his book Scharre goes to great lengths to point out what technology cannot do yet and what it may be able to do in the future. And he highlights the machines’ vulnerabilities and their inherent shortcomings. Each course of action in terms of developing and fielding autonomous or semi-autonomous weapons needs an ethical evaluation and a consistent set of rules for its operation, embedded itself in a general strategy. This is the point where the human input will always remain crucial: Man sets the rules.

Technology will do what we will let it do. We can decide not to pursue certain types of research. It has happened before with the neutron bomb. We can prohibit the use of certain technologies as we prohibited the use of (not very smart) anti-personnel mines and biological weapons. But first of all, we, the tax payers, must know what is possible. We may then ask our politicians to present to us options and cost-benefit analyses. And then we can make an informed political choice. This is why this book is so important. Stay informed not only about politics or climate change, but also about technology. All three factors will shape our future more than any time before.

This said I recently enjoyed a ride in what Luxembourg calls its “first autonomous bus shuttle”. Point 1: Its route is pre-defined by a human. The vehicle transports six passengers from a pedestrian escalator to a railway station and back. Point 2: It has an operator on board who defines when the bus moves and stops. The shuttle’s sensors identify obstacles on their own and forces the bus to stop, but the operator gives the go to move on once the obstacle is gone. Point 3: It is moving at a slow speed and it comes abruptly to a stop. At best we may call it semi-autonomous. And as far as its capacities are concerned, walking from the escalator to the station is smoother and almost as fast. But of course riding the shuttle was a lot funnier!

Napoleon Bonaparte revolutionized military affairs in the fields of training, tactics and grand strategy. His intellectual genius and his daring mindset enabled him to subjugate the European continent with the exception of Great Britain. He and his troops however failed to beat Russia in 1812. Napoleon’s lines of communication were overextended, his once successful maneuvering strategy failed when the enemy retreated further and further into the vast Russian plains. He occupied Moscow only to discover the Russians had set it on fire. Napoleon had to retreat without a decisive victory and his army was annihilated in rear-guard engagements, weakened by a harsh winter and a lack of both food and ammunition. Technology wasn’t an issue. Bad human judgment was the problem. Pyotr Tchaikovsky has set to music the events of 1812 in an overture of the same name:

Wargames at the Sound of Tchaikovsky