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

Rescueing America’s Middle Class – A Woman’s Mission

warren elizabeth.jpg

Antonia Felix: Elizabeth Warren. Her Fight. Her Work. Her Life. ISBN 978-1-4926-6528-1 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I had no idea how much I would love this book. It was fun to read, and it gave me an excellent insight into the plight of the American middle class, a fundamental factor in understanding how somebody like Donald Trump could become president of the United States. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s story, told by Antonia Felix, reminded me of Karl Marx’ description of how factory owners exploited factory workers in the 19th century and how the proletariat got caught in the trap of low-income, no education and no chance to rise from misery. An informed account of social injustice and the economic mechanism behind it.

Don’t get me wrong. Warren is not a Communist, not even what the Americans call a “Socialist”. She is labeled sometimes a “dangerous liberal”, and her Republican opponents mean it as an insult. But this only adds to her credibility. She is dangerous for selfish, arrogant politicians and bank CEOs, not for common mortals. Actually Warren is very much in favor of the market economy. She is also a staunch defender of the level playing field that should give all Americans a realistic and equal chance to live the “American Dream”. And there you have it: The playing field is not level. As a scholar she studied the income situation of the middle class for decades. She initiated the first large field study to find out why households file for bankruptcy. Investigating what circumstances pushed households over the cliff became her academic mission.

Losers and winners

Globalization divided the United States into losers and winners, it turned Main Street against Wall Street. The unbridled capitalism, marked by a deregulated banking sector and highly fragile financial constructions, proved to be one of the traps in which the middle class got caught. Lay-offs and the lack of adequate social security were part of the problem. Another element was the easy money that flooded US consumer pockets. You have bills to pay? Use the credit card? You default on your credit card? Take another credit card! Never mind that the bank will charge you outrageous fees later. And African-Americans and Latinx become more easily a prey for ruthless lenders as they are more often targeted by such lenders and often lack the education to see the trap closing.

Then there is the housing issue. A house in a good neighbourhood – one with a good school and other public infrastructure – is an expensive investment. Mortgage financing seems to be the quick and easy solution. But many are not aware of the dangers and the expertise needed to work through the paperwork. Add the risk that many take in refinancing their consumer credits through their mortgage. A grim picture. “Americans are drowning in debt”, Felix writes. “One in four families say they are worried about how they will pay their credit card bills this month […] Last year [2017], 1.2 millions families lost their homes in foreclosure.”

On the brink of poverty

A situation all too familiar to Senator Warren. She grew up in a poor family in Oklahoma. Both parents had to work, and at some moment, their home was at risk. Young Elizabeth was expected to marry a good man and not to start expensive studies to become a teacher as she wished. Gender roles were an issue, but already as a young girl, Elizabeth Warren knew how to persist. Persist – it became one of her winning formulas and quite a few members of Congress and staffers at the White House have experienced Warren’s tenacity. She became an outstanding researcher and teacher wining multiple awards.

Warren’s desire to learn and to teach brought her to the pinnacle of law studies in America: Harvard. However Warren’s career did not stop there. Having situational awareness is one thing. Finding ways and means to remedy the situation is another. But is it the job of a Harvard scholar? Warren’s expertise, her savvy use of TV shows and her publications made her a well-known person all over the United States. And soon after the financial crisis, Democrats from Washington started to reach out to her. In her youth she had been a Republican, her study of the consequences of “laissez-faire” capitalism have converted her.

A scholar turned politician

In October 2008, Congress authorized 700 billion US dollars to stabilize the economy through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). It targeted the failing banking sector, and Warren joined the Bankruptcy Review Commission to supervise the implementation of TARP. She got a first taste of Washington politics and was appalled. It was all about saving the banks, and still no one cared about those who had their savings and pensions wiped out. She wrote a brilliant article with the title “Unsafe at Any Rate” and requested safety standards for credit card contracts and mortgages similar to those in force for electrical appliances, toasters for example. At the end of a long political battle stood the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, announced by President Barack Obama in 2011.

Partisan infighting prevented Warren to become the agency’s first director as Republicans had vowed to take the agency down, no matter what the political costs were. And a retired senator, Barbara Mikulski, gave Warren a piece of advice: “Don’t get mad; get elected.” What she did. After some hesitations, she resigned from her post in Harvard and went on an election campaign targeting the people who were the subject of her studies: the impoverished and weakened middle class that did not seem to have a champion in Washington.

Serving the people

Warren’s desire to serve the average American has become her hallmark. She appears genuine in championing this cause, and it’s a worthy, noble cause. She knows as much about the issues at hand as anyone in the United States. As a senator she forged bipartisan bills by reaching out to other female senators with common sense. She has a strong sense of community, visible to anyone who cares to watch, and being elected twice to the Senate proves that she stands a chance to accomplish even more. A “Washington Post” writer has her in the first slot of the Democrat’s candidates for the presidential elections in 2020. People like Elizabeth Warren do not claim to make America great again. People like Elizabeth Warren actually make America a better place.

Female heroes are not exactly abundant in classical music, but this does not mean that they do not exist at all. Judith, who gave her name to a chapter of the Old Testament, is such a hero, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed at the age of 15 “La Betulia Liberata”, an oratorio about Judith’s deeds:

A Mozart oratorio about women empowerment

On Over-Seized Egos and the Rule of Fear in Politics

Alan Bullock: Hitler and Stalin – Parallel lives. ISBN 978-0-679-7294-5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ This book is a brick. It is some 900 pages long, but it is an exceptional book about world history and power politics, meticulously researched and well written. It covers the history of the first half of the 20th century seen through the eyes of Adolf Hitler and Josef Dugashwili, later known as Stalin. The book, published before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, is a huge scientific achievement and a book of utmost relevance today. It touches a number of psychological points highly interesting to anyone interested in how political leaders see and shape today’s world.

Propaganda is key

The way Adolf Hitler, a low profile soldier and artist, conquered political power and managed to put Germany under the spell of a racist ideology leading to World War II and the long list of atrocities committed by German soldiers and the SS is significant as Hitler used means very similar to those used by Donald Trump to gain access to the White House. A key element is and was the spreading of fear deriving from wild conspiracy theories among the political constituency – the Jewish worldwide alliance against Germany in the case of Hitler, Europe and China cheating on the US and the threat posed by the establishment in Washington (the “swamp” that still waits to be drained) in the case of Trump.

Both Hitler and Trump achieved this through a constant propagandistic drumbeat. Hitler excelled as an orator and dispatched Nazi speakers with a road-show to all corners of Germany saturating the public debate with his populist slogans and his foul speech while Trump uses friendly media outlets and social networks to spread lies, slander rivals and spin the public debate to suit his personal ambitions.

Vying for the disenchanted masses

Building a political career on the resentments of the constituency is another parallel. Germany’s already weak economy was heavily hit by the Great Depression and political stability was shaky after 1918. Thus Germans were hard to convince of the benefit of their first truly democratic experience and readily listened to anyone suggesting a firm leadership and quick fixes, however unrealistic they seemed to an unbiased observer. Today globalization has produced a great number of people losing out in all industrialized countries and specifically in the US. Many of those became easily convinced that Trump could make America great again and thus restore their former personal position in society.

Stalin came to power in a very different way than Hitler. He gained a foothold in politics by becoming a professional revolutionary in Georgia, his native region, and by joining the Communist cause. Once he had become part of the inner circle of Lenin, he made sure to become Lenin’s successor instead of Lev Trotzky as the leader of the Communist Party by eliminating all rivals through bureaucratic manoeuvring or by inventing conspiracies and having his rivals arrested. From the 1920s on until his death in 1953 Stalin ruled by fear. He succumbed to many economic, political and military mistakes that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens, but very few people were allowed to contradict him. They could all too easily lose their position, their privileges or their life.

Alan Bullock’s description of Stalin’s grip over the Soviet Union reminds me in many respects of the ways the president Vladimir Putin rules Russia today. Of course, there are no Gulags anymore and the FSB does not deport hundreds of thousands to Siberia. The means have become more subtle, more polished to maintain the illusion of the rule of law. But the basic logic remains unchanged: Shut up or else!

Denying reality and “fake news”

Both Stalin and Hitler show how far leaders can become removed from reality, : Hitler never visited the front, he locked himself up in his bunker during the last months of World War II, unwilling and unable to acknowledge that the war was lost and that he had sacrificed Germany for a fantasy i.e. conquering “Lebensraum” (living space) for racially pure German colonists and to satisfy his own ego. Up to the last days he maintained that he was the saviour of Germany, finding an astonishing variety of scapegoats: the  General Staff of the armed forces, the officer corps and the leadership of the SS, all of them having betrayed him at some point, and of course Great Britain who had failed to understand the benefit of a coalition with the Nazi regime.

Stalin isolated himself no less from reality by surrounding himself with legions of yes-sayers. Any reports not fitting with his opinion would be deemed a fabrication. The psychological mechanisms at work in the case of these two leaders remind me very much about reports on how the White House handles current affairs and the time Trump devotes to identify and denounce “fake news”.

Leaders are vulnerable

Finally Bullock’s study shows that the paramount driving force for both leaders was fear. Hitler had to prove himself everyday that Providence had chosen him to save Germany, that Germany adored him for his spiritual leadership and that Germany could rule Europe through the sheer power of will (Thank you Schopenauer for giving this man such grand ideas!). He had founded a religion and cast himself in the role of God. Omniscient, omnipotent. Fear to be proven wrong kept Hitler going until his last days in Berlin. The war could not be lost, because it would have called into question his abilities and the fate that Providence had reserved for him, Germany and the rest of the world for that matter.

Stalin fared no better: His early career as a revolutionary, forced to operate in clandestine ways, made him prone to a paranoia that took exceptional dimensions under the strain of conducting a war first against Russia’s peasants and then against Germany. Stalin would not have trusted his own shadow. And he had plenty of reasons to fear to be assassinated: He had made himself legions of enemies during the purges of the Communist Party and the armed forces, and his dramatic miscalculations in the early stages of the German offensive had led many to believe he was unfit for office.

When appreciating today’s world leaders this book offers a key to understand their true motivations and the decision-making processes that define their policies irrespective of the time. At the centre is the concept of fear – the fear to lose the power they have gained, the very same fear they use to come to and stay in power. They use fear and they know it works. And they fear it could be successfully used against them. This fear makes them corruptible for it makes them vulnerable. If we want to get rid of them, this is the weak spot we have to strike at. But before that we need to overcome our own fear.

This post would not be complete without a reference to music and I suggest Dmitry Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, Op. 60 “Leningrad”. Shostakovich lived in constant fear of Stalin’s animosity, and the siege of Leningrad was an early example of the contest of will-power between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany:

A symphony born out of rubbles