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

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

World History Seen Through a Middle-Eastern Prism

Peter Frankopan: Silk Roads. A New History of the World ISBN 978-1-4088-3999-7 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ The subject of this book is so vast that I hardly know how to begin this review. Perhaps I should start by saying that I was overwhelmed both by the author’s detailed knowledge and his analytical ability by which I mean his way to connect the past to the present and to show hidden links between events that do not seem connected in the first place. I have rarely seen a researcher presenting such a complex issue in such an intelligible way.

For complex the subject is: the history of the world. One has to be a little ambitious, hasn’t one? But why a new history? Peter Frankopan’s stroke of genius consists in a shift of perspective as he explains in the preface. We tend to have a Eurocentric view of history: the Neanderthal, the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Middle Ages, Enlightenment, World War I and II. Perhaps we may spare a thought for the colonisation of the Americas, feel a little guilty because of the genocides we orchestrated, and even after the United States seemed to be the biggest winner of World War II, we tend to view the history of the world through the prism of Europe. After all, the likelihood of the Cold War turning into mutual nuclear annihilation would had the first and most violent impact along the Iron Curtain.

Frankopan takes a different look at the past 2500 years. He and this book’s readers board a time-machine and fly back to the times and places of Cyrus the Great, the founder of a powerful Persian empire. Location is paramount here. Frankopan analyzes how the power balance in this region, the wealth of its natural resources, the industriousness of local traders at the origin of the Silk Road, the genius of the local intellectuals, and, last but not least the refinement of arts impacted over the centuries first on Europe, than on China, India, on what today is Russia and finally on the New World.

This completely new perspective on the correlation of political, military, economic, sociological and philosophical events affecting us Europeans is the key issue of Peter Frankopan’s monumental work. His research was both broad and deep, his sources are well documented. His analytical brilliance is matched by an easy-to-follow narrative leading in my case to many new insights, insights that many years of studies in political science, in political journalism and in government service did not give me. I was truly impressed and at the same time frustrated about my past ignorance. So much had not known or understood!

Let me just name a few examples. Fact 1: Jews and Muslims supported each other politically and economically in the early years of Islam, both gaving identified a win-win situation and a common religious heritage. Fact 2: A transcontinental slave trade between Europe and Asia, spanning over several centuries, was economically of the highest importance to the political entities of these times. Fact 3: Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union had an important economic rationale as Nazi Germany needed the grain harvested in the Ukraine to feed its citizen and the oil of the Caucasus to feed its war machine. Fact 4: Not only the United States, but China too supplied Afghan insurgents against the Soviet occupation force with weapons and trained Islamic fighters from its western province; a support it would letter regret – just like the United States – when these fighters turned their arms against their former patrons.

In each chapter of this highly recommended book, Frankopan focuses on a different type of “Silk Road”. At times human ambition was motivated and fuelled by the appetite for textile, furs, gold, silver, oil or grain. At others Man embarked on the road to moral salvation or hell on earth, to crisis and war, to revolution and genocide. The earth’s political and economic center of gravity shifted east and west, and the last chapter of the book remains to be written.

If the original Silk Road linked China to Europe with the Middle East as the indispensable transit point, the current government in Beijing intends to rebuilt this political and economic power axis with its “Belt and Road Initiative”, a system of overland corridors and shipping lanes from South-east Asia to Eastern Europe and Africa. It is an ambitious project aiming to translate economic into political leverage and to make China the leading nation of the world at the expense of the United States, perceived by many inside and outside of China as having passed its zenith as a superpower. “The Guardian” had published an excellent piece about this project.

I am looking forward to a new edition of Frankopan’s book in ten years and another one in twenty years. It would have to address in a new chapter China’s emergence as the world’s economic leader or, alternatively, the fall of an ambitious state that failed to address migration issues, civil unrest, political corruption and ecological disasters. In which direction the centre of gravity would shift in the second scenario will remain a challenging question.

It is this context that makes “The Silk Roads” a highly stimulating read. It shakes our Eurocentric view upon world affairs and encourages us to look at globalisation with the eyes of an Iranian banker, a Chinese entrepreneur, a Kazakh railway engineer or an Indian aerospace scientist. If George Orwell coined the phrase “Who controls the past controls the future”, I am tempted to believe that who knows the past is well prepared to anticipate the future. Human life is 50 percent ambition turned towards the future and 50 percent experience gained in the past by himself or his ancestors. Frankopan concludes the book with a stern warning: “What has been striking throughout the events of recent decades is the west’s lack of perspective about global history – about the bigger picture, the wider themes and the larger patterns playing out in the region.”

When I closed the book I felt that politicians and citizen in Europe and in the United States would be well advised to display a little humbleness when dealing with Asian countries, their governments and their citizen. There is no natural law that makes our countries more important than others. We may dictate the rules now. A look back shows that others have written them in the past, and it is not unlikely that they will write them again in the near future.

Obviously the treasures of the Orient have tempted many adventurers to explore the Middle East, and the legends around both the treasures and the adventurers have excited generations of story-tellers and their audiences. “Sheherazade.2”, a piece composed by John Adams, is part of this tradition:

Sheherazade – Only Smart Women Survive

I am literature – Kafka’s life and extreme ambition

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Reiner Stach: Die Kafka-Biographie in drei Bänden (English titles: Kafka: The Early Years, Kafka: The Years of Insight, Kafka: The Decisive Years). ISBN 978-3-10-397256-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Few non-fiction works have given me the satisfaction that this biography of Franz Kafka gave me. The original German edition counts some 1800 pages, spread over three volumes, and each page was an adventure. Rainer Stach combines a thorough scientific study of Kafka’s life and works with masterful story-telling. His sound knowledge of the history of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire allows him to put Kafka’s life in a precise philosophical, political and sociological context. And Stach’s outstanding literary talent made it possible to write a witty, emphatic biography while maintaining the necessary distance to the subject at the same time.

What shall I say? This is certainly the best biography I have read so far and most likely one of the best books I have read. What impressed me, was the consistency of the ideas that guide the reader through the three volumes. Kafka was an enigmatic person, no doubt, but it is possible to decrypt both him and his works, if not to the last detail then at least well enough to understand Kafka’s states of mind, his motives, his ambitions and the obstacles that prevented him from becoming a successful author during his lifetime, obstacles he set up mostly himself.

The second and third volume are brim-full of bookmarks and annotations of mine, so where should I start? Perhaps with Kafka’s ambition which at the same time was what he considered the purpose of his life. Kafka was looking for the utmost depth of his soul, the hidden truths inside himself, pure and therefore honest. He looked so hard that on many occasions he lost himself. Catapulted into a state of extreme introspection, he found bits and pieces of his essence at the level of his subconsciousness. He combined this with a precise observation of his environment, the society of Prague, the psychological workings of his dysfunctional family and metaphors they inspired to him. And just like in a black box, through an unintelligible process, out came a book, a letter, a note in one of his many drafting booklets.

It could take years until a coherent text took shape, but once the black-box was triggered Kafka would write day and night until total exhaustion. As you may know, he almost never finished a text. Most of his novels end abruptly and leave the reader somewhat speechless, like “The Castle”. Sometimes Kafka wrote chapters for a novel without knowing where to insert them. I remember the chapters at the end of  “The Trial”. They illustrate certain parts of the plot, but you can either read them or not. Kafka himself was unsure.

Kafka intended to replicate life in literature and at the same time literature was his life. As Stach writes, one of the forces that propelled Kafka’s writing forward was “the reciprocal concentration of fantasy and reality”, well visible in Kafka’s novel “Metamorphosis”. This however was an extreme challenge, as Kafka recognized himself. To his fiancée Felice he once wrote: “The outer world is too small, too obvious, too authentic to hold all that is encapsulated in one human being.”

One of Kafka’s central issue was the subject of social exclusion. He always felt like the odd man out – in his family, at school, in his job as an insurance expert, in the literary scene of Prague, in the Jewish community, a stranger among humans. And this was by no means just an attitude. Stach describes it as an affliction, a lifelong burden and a lifelong source of inspiration. More than once Kafka feared to turn mad, trapped by the conflicting forces that tore at his soul, but suicide was never an issue as this would not have been compatible with his ambition. He could not withdraw from the life-long experiment labeled “I am literature”.

Kafka’s desire to write something completely truthful, perfectly reflecting his ideas and emotions let him to hone his writing skill over decades, leading to an aesthetic concept marked by an extreme density, a meticulous choice of words and metaphors and a stark, sober style when it came to descriptions. It was Kafka’s language that enthralled me, it was his symbolism that captivated my mind and it was Stach’s biography that helped me understand both the man and his works. With Kafka I discovered a whole world, his world, and at the same time I received a code to decypher modern-day sociological issues that are not very different from the issues at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Kafka had no interest in classical music and told his friend Max Brod he could not distinguish Franz Lehar’s operette “The Merry Widow” from Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”. Prague was the geographical centre of Kafka’s life and so I’d like to link this outstanding biography to an outstanding Czech composer, Leos Janacek, who benefited of Brod’s support, and his String Quartet No. 1:

Entangled in Janacek’s tragedies and love affairs